From the stairs at the entrance of the subway station to the interior of the train, the floor is covered in water from the rain outside. In a café, an employee at the counter is at a loss while dealing with a stubborn customer requesting a disposable cup. These situations are regular occurences these days because the government is asking the citizens to accept a little inconvenience to prevent further environmental pollution. In some situations, individual sacrifice for a great cause is needed-but is it truly worth it in this case?
The Korean government is finally taking meaningful action for the environment. According to European Plastics and Rubber Machinery (EUROMAP), Korea’s yearly use of plastic packaging and wrappers per head in 2015 was about 61.97 kilograms, ranking it second highest among the 63 inspected countries behind Belgium. The figure is rising every year, and the damage arising from excess plastic waste is quite self-explanatory.
The trend to replace disposables with recyclable and reusable products has spread worldwide, and it seems that Korea has decided to follow suit. Starting this May, disposable plastic umbrella covers were eliminated from all subway stations in Seoul. Also, since August, customers cannot use plastic cups if they choose to stay inside a café; reusable mugs are the new alternatives. However, because these changes were so abrupt, criticism by the public was strong. The underlying reason for the opposition is evident; the government did not take into account the possibility of complaint.
Before eliminating the supply of umbrella covers, trash cans were overflowing with wet vinyl bags on rainy days. This was not only visually unattractive but also detrimental to the environment. But not many complained about the consequences of the excess plastic because it is hard to imagine taking a train while dripping wet due to soaked umbrellas. The plastic covers might not have been the best plan, but few would agree that getting rid of them without an effective alternative in place–such as supplying more rain removing devices, which are currently only installed in front of Government Complex Seoul–was a wise decision.
Regarding the plastic cups, the government inadvertently punished innocent owners with the new rule. Because consumers are the main agents in the change, their cooperation is vital. The clerks are in a difficult social position of enforcing the use of mugs when a customer wants to use a disposable cup. Yet it is the store owners who get fined if a customer stays in their café with a plastic cup. This awkward situation implies that the law did not fully consider all the variables and possible permutations.
In fact, before imposing the plastic cup regulation, there was a test trial period: officials sitting down with the staff and simply asking if they were recommending that the customers use a mug without further monitoring. Clearly, it was not the smartest way of making a trial run, and it is maybe an indication that the officials were not confident in what they were doing. Even the officials themselves were not eager to observe the rule, so how can the citizens trust what the government is asking them to do?
For a great cause, small losses are expected. However, that does not mean that those who are inconvenienced can be wholly neglected. Before introducing new regulations, the decision makers must question the citizens on their thoughts, or at least predict the short-term effects and provide a solution. It is time for the government to reflect on whether they are overburdening the citizens under the name of environmental protection.