Journal of Ecology and Environment

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Published online February 15, 2024

Journal of Ecology and Environment (2024) 48:08

Plastic recycling in South Korea: problems, challenges, and policy recommendations in the endemic era

Uhram Song1 and Hun Park2*

1Department of Biology, Jeju National University, Jeju 63243, Republic of Korea
2OJEong Resilience Institute (OJERI), Korea University, Seoul 02841, Republic of Korea

Correspondence to:Hun Park

Received: November 7, 2023; Revised: January 11, 2024; Accepted: January 15, 2024

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit The publisher of this article is The Ecological Society of Korea in collaboration with The Korean Society of Limnology

Background: Despite many environmental problems, plastic waste emissions have been a significant surge during last few decades in the Republic of Korea. Furthermore, the emergence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has lead to an increased use and disposal of plastic waste worldwide. This paper tried to present summarized data related to the production and disposal of plastics especially before and after the COVID-19 pandemic with environmental impacts of plastics. Also, review of plastic waste reduction policies and feasible policies to promote an act for a safe, sustainable environment are presented.
Results: Plastics cause many environmental problems due to their non-degrading properties and have a huge direct and indirect impact on Ecosystems and Public Health. Microplastics need a lot of attention because their environmental effects are not yet fully identified. Despite plastic’s significant impact on climate change, the impact is not yet widely known to the public. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of plastic has surged and recycling has decreased due to the increase in delivery food and online shopping. Korea is introducing very active plastic and waste management policies, but it is necessary to implement more active policies by referring to the cases of other countries.
Conclusions: In this article, we have scrutinized the evolution of plastic waste generation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and delved into policy frameworks adopted by other nations, which South Korea can draw valuable lessons from. The formidable challenges posed by plastic waste, the remarkable shifts witnessed during the COVID-19 era, and the multifaceted response strategies elucidated in this paper all play a pivotal role in steering South Korea toward a sustainable future.

Keywords: climate change, microplastics, plastic recycling, recycling policy, sustainable

Plastics serve as essential resources in modern life, finding applications in packaging, clothing, biomedical devices, electronic components, and various other areas (Timmy and Smith 2020). Disturbingly, the production of mismanaged plastic waste has escalated over the years. In 2015, it reached an estimated 60 to 99 million metric tons, with a projected 2.5-fold increase by 2040, according to the United Nations in 2022 (United Nations Environment Programme 2022). Of this waste, 23 million metric tons enter aquatic systems, 11 million metric tons are dumped into oceans, and another 11 million metric tons are incinerated on land. Despite ongoing efforts to mitigate plastic waste, the problem continues to grow, with global plastic waste expected to double between 2020 and 2030 (Borrelle et al. 2020).

Specifically in South Korea, per capita plastic waste emissions have been a significant surge, averaging 52 g per day between 1996 and 1998 but soaring to nearly four times that amount (203 g) between 2017 and 2019 (Park 2021). The emergence of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic further exacerbated this issue, leading to an increased use and disposal of plastic waste worldwide (Peng et al. 2021). Remarkably, public awareness regarding the gravity of plastic waste concerns remains limited. Many individuals are not fully informed about the adverse impacts of plastic waste. An illustrative example can be seen in certain regions of Korea, such as Jeju and Sejong City, which attempted to implement a money deposit system for disposable cups. This initiative faced strong opposition, highlighting the existing lack of awareness about plastic waste problems (Im 2022b).

In light of these challenges, this paper aims to present summarized data related to the production and disposal of plastics especially before and after the COVID-19 pandemic, and environmental impacts of plastics with specific focuses on microplastics and climate change. Furthermore, the paper will review historical and current plastic waste reduction policies in South Korea and present feasible policies from other countries to promote to advocating and demanding an act for a safe, sustainable environment.

General issues with plastics and plastic waste

One of the most well-documented concerns regarding plastics is their non-biodegradable nature. The persistence of plastics necessitates extensive landfill space, with plastics accounting for an estimated 10% of household waste (Barnes et al. 2009). As many countries grapple with limited landfill capacity (Song and Lee 2010), the management of plastic disposal poses a significant challenge. While plastic waste in landfills can be managed, a substantial amount of plastic waste ends up escaping into the environment, rather than being contained within landfills. For instance, a staggering 60 to 80% of waste found on beaches and floating in the ocean consists of plastic (Verma et al. 2016). This leakage of plastic waste leads to both direct and indirect destruction and degradation of soil and the Earth’s surface. Although the biogeochemical processes involving plastics in soil are not yet fully understood, their presence in soil can disrupt the local ecosystems, accelerate carbon and nitrogen metabolism, deplete soil organic matter, increase soil water repellency, and elevate the release of greenhouse gases from the soil (Steinmetz et al. 2016).

Water pollution caused by plastics is gaining increasing attention due to the ubiquitous presence of plastics in aquatic environments, encompassing freshwater and marine ecosystems (Nikiema et al. 2020). Plastics have profound environmental impacts, including the blockage of canals and sewers (Nikiema et al. 2020), the creation of breeding habitats for mosquitoes (Banerjee et al. 2013), the reduction of recreational and touristic value in landscapes (Galgani et al. 2019), and harm to the respiratory and digestive systems of animals (Nikiema et al. 2020). Furthermore, the buoyant nature of plastics has given rise to large accumulations like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a major global concern (Pyrek 2016; Lebreton et al. 2018). There are at least six giant garbage patches formed by ocean gyres (Leal Filho et al. 2021), contributing to environmental issues such as entangling marine life, ingestion by birds and fish, the transport of invasive species, and water contamination (Leal Filho et al. 2021).

Effects on ecosystems and public health

Plastics can have diverse effects on animals, acting as carriers of pathogens, vectors of parasites, and sources of chemical toxicity (Vanapalli et al. 2021). Contaminants originating from plastics, including flame retardants, phthalates, ambient chemicals, and bisphenol A, can function as pathogenic agents affecting the human endocrine system (Evode et al. 2021). Plastics release various chemicals that are introduced into ecosystems and humans (Proshad et al. 2018). These environmental hormones can disrupt the hormone levels of animals, resulting in birth defects, developmental delays, cancers, and abnormal behaviors (Alabi et al. 2019; Talsness et al. 2009). For humans, exposure to chemicals released by plastics can lead to reproductive and genital organ disorders, malignant cancers, impaired immunity, birth defects, and even communicable diseases (Evode et al. 2021). Many birds and marine animals have met tragic fates due to drowning or suffocation as a result of becoming entangled in plastic debris (Alabi et al. 2019). Plastic waste is indigestible to animals and significantly contributes to sea animal mortality (Wilcox et al. 2018). One widely recognized issue involving plastics is the poignant public awareness raised by photographs of deceased birds with plastic-filled stomachs (Coastal Care 2015).

Moreover, a growing concern is the direct cellular toxicity of plastics, which induces oxidative stress and membrane damage (Banerjee and Shelver 2021). Additionally, there is increasing attention to changes in the microbiota of natural environments and animals’ guts, which are emerging issues associated with the presence of plastics (Agathokleous et al. 2021). These concerns are linked to recent scientific findings regarding ‘microplastics.’


In the natural environment, ultraviolet light plays a role in breaking down plastics into their monomeric constituents, giving rise to microplastics (Evode et al. 2021). Additionally, the physical impacts of wind, tides, waves, currents, and other factors can lead to the degradation of plastics, resulting in the formation of smaller particles (Zhang 2017). Particles with a diameter of less than 5 mm are classified as microplastics, and they have garnered significant public attention as a novel form of pollutant (Tang et al. 2018). The term ‘microplastics’ was first coined by Richard Thompson in 2004 to describe their long-term accumulation (Thompson et al. 2004). Microplastics can be classified into two main categories: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics (Osman et al. 2023). Primary microplastics are intentionally manufactured and added to products such as cosmetics, personal care items, pharmaceuticals, detergents, etc. On the other hand, secondary microplastics are inadvertently formed through the breakdown of larger plastic materials via physical, chemical, or biological ocesses. Examples of sources for secondary microplastics include buoy, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and plastic food containers. Microplastics can also be categorized based on their chemical composition such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and other substances (Osman et al. 2023). In the 2010s, research and public attention focused on the fate and impacts of microplastics (Andrady 2011; Cole et al. 2011). Microplastic particles are easily consumed by aquatic animals and can enter the food chain (Wang et al. 2020). They can induce oxidative stress, cytotoxicity (Lu et al. 2016), DNA damage (Imhof et al. 2017), reproductive toxicity (Liu et al. 2022), inflammation (Von Moos et al. 2012), disruption of immune responses (Pei et al. 2022; Teng et al. 2022), neurotoxicity (Lei et al. 2018), and disruptions in the digestive, immunological, and respiratory systems in animals. Microplastics can also have serious health consequences for humans (Sangkham et al. 2022). These issues are currently the subject of extensive research, given that it is known that microplastics can enter the human body through the food chain. Scientists estimate that annual microplastic consumption ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles, and this estimate increases to 121,000 when inhalation is taken into account (Cox et al. 2019). With the increased use of anti-COVID-19 facial masks, the risk of inhaling microplastics is on the rise in 2023 (Li et al. 2021).

Furthermore, microplastics have been reported to exert toxic effects on plants (Balestri et al. 2019; Gao et al. 2019), interfering with their systems. Microplastics can alter germination rates and growth (Liu et al. 2013), photosynthesis (Sun et al. 2020), oxidative activity (Pignattelli et al. 2020), and cause damage to DNA and spindles (Zhang et al. 2022).

The interactions between microorganisms and microplastics are intricate. Not only do microplastics affect microorganisms, but microorganisms also influence the fate of microplastics (Rogers et al. 2020). Microplastics can pose hazards to microorganisms, altering their heterotrophic activity and modifying the carbon cycling of microorganisms. They can even influence evolution by increasing horizontal gene transfer (Arias-Andres et al. 2019). Additionally, beyond these toxic effects, microorganisms can transport, degrade, and change the impact on microplastic food webs. These interactions are important areas for future study (Rogers et al. 2020).

Plastics and climate change

The connection between the use of plastics and its impact on climate change remains relatively less recognized by the general public, which underscores the importance of addressing this issue in this paper. Table 1 demonstrates that the production of plastics is associated with more than an average of 2 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of plastics (Chamas et al. 2020). For instance, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common material used in our daily lives, requires over 2.4 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of PET production (see Table 1). Moreover, the longevity of these plastics is considerable, with some requiring hundreds of years to reach a half-life, and others, like high-density polyethylene (HDPE), taking thousands of years to degrade when disposed of in landfills (see Table 1). Even in marine environments, the half-life of plastics ranges from a few years to several hundred years (Table 1). These non-degrading plastics can significantly alter vital physicochemical properties of soil, such as soil aggregation, porosity, and water-holding capacity, which subsequently impact the composition of microbial communities (Rillig et al. 2021). These alterations have far-reaching consequences on the soil carbon cycle.

Table 1 . Comparative analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions during the production and the natural degradation time of different types of plastics.

GHG emissions per unit of material produced
(kg CO2e/kg)
Common applicationsTypical thickness
Estimated half-lives (min–max, yr)
Land (accelerated
by UV/heat)
MarineMarine (accelerated
by UV/heat)
water bottle
500> 2,5002.3
HDPE1.676Plastic bottles500250
(23 to > 2,500)
(450 to > 2,500)
PVC2.127Pipes10,000> 2,500
LDPE1.984Plastic bags1004.62.3
(1.4 to > 2,500)
PP1.698Food storage container8007805387
PS2.756Insulating packaging20,000> 2,500
Others2.138Biodegradable plastic bag1000.19
0.163.1 (1.7–6.7)0.29

GHG: greenhouse gas; UV: ultraviolet; PET: polyethylene terephthalate; HDPE: high-density polyethylene; PVC: polyvinyl chloride; LDPE: low-density polyethylene; PP: polypropylenes; PS: polystyrene.

Adapted and modified from the article of Chamas et al. (ACS Sustainable Chem Eng. 2020;8(9):3494-511) and United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) (2020.

Moreover, non-degrading plastics can impact plant growth through various mechanisms (Rillig et al. 2021; Wang et al. 2022), leading to reduced carbon fixation. These undegraded plastics also influence the storage and exchange of carbon among aqueous, terrestrial, and atmospheric carbon reservoirs, thereby affecting water chemistry (Dees et al. 2021). In sum, undegraded plastics have multifaceted effects on the carbon cycle.

A concerning aspect is that approximately 10% to 12% of plastic waste is incinerated, releasing combustion gases into the environment. This contributes to air pollution and enhances the greenhouse effect (Harter et al. 2015). For example, the combustion of HDPE results in 2.98 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of plastics, with similar emissions for polypropylenes (PP) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) (Joshi and Seay 2020). In the case of HDPE, 1.68 kg of CO2 emissions are associated with its production (Table 1), and an additional 2.98 kg of CO2 emissions occur during combustion. This equates to a total of 4.66 kg of CO2 emissions per kg of HDPE, encompassing both production and use of the plastic. Furthermore, during combustion, various toxic gases are released alongside greenhouse gases (Ágnes and Rajmund 2016; Heidari et al. 2019). The environmental impact of plastics on climate change is a significant concern, yet it often receives insufficient attention. Therefore, there is a pressing need to raise public awareness about the intricate relationship between plastics and climate change, in parallel with conducting further scientific research in this area.

Until 2019, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of plastics had been steadily increasing in South Korea (Park 2021) and globally (Borrelle et al. 2020). In South Korea, daily plastic usage had surged from 52 g in 1998 to 203 g in 2019 (Park 2021). Over the past few decades, plastic disposal in major cities and provinces experienced a rapid increase (Fig. 1). There were isolated years with significant decreases in certain areas, partly attributed to the implementation of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme in 2003 (Yoon and Jang 2006). However, plastic waste disposal began to rise again, showing a particularly sharp increase in 2018 and 2019 (Fig. 1) (Korea Environment Corporation 2022). The reasons for this sudden increase are not entirely clear, but they may be linked to China’s plastic waste import ban in 2018 (Choi et al. 2018). As China prohibited the import of plastic waste, recycling companies in South Korea faced rejections, and this waste was counted as discarded (Kim et al. 2019). Furthermore, South Korean waste that was illegally exported was imported to the Philippines, bringing disgrace to the nation (International Pollutants Elimination Network 2020). Such events underscore the vulnerability of the waste management and recycling systems in South Korea and the pressing need for improvements in plastic waste management.

Figure 1. Daily discharge of synthetic resin (plastics) waste by region (3-year moving average). Adapted and modified from the Korea Environment Corporation (K-eco) (2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem of plastic waste. As social distancing became the primary solution to combat the pandemic, non-face-to-face behaviors became prevalent in many aspects of daily life. Traditional restaurant dining gave way to delivery services as ready-to-eat food deliveries in South Korea multiplied fourfold after the COVID-19 pandemic (Fig. 2A). A significant proportion of consumers also increased their reliance on delivery and take-out services (Rha et al. 2021), leading to a rapid surge in disposable plastic waste (Shams et al. 2021). For instance, in Singapore, during a two-month lockdown in 2020, take-out and home-delivery grocery services contributed an additional 1,400 t of plastic waste (Shams et al. 2021). In South Korea, not only restaurant food deliveries but also grocery deliveries experienced a substantial uptick (Fig. 2B) (Korean Statistical Information Service 2023). The packaging of groceries typically involves significant plastic use (Al Qahtani et al. 2021), further contributing to the plastic waste problem. Furthermore, online shopping showed a sharp increase following the COVID-19 pandemic (Fig. 3) (Korea Integrated Logistics Association 2023). Although parcel services had been on the rise before the pandemic, the proliferation of online shopping became inevitable (Rothengatter et al. 2021). Many countries are transitioning into the post-corona era, and the lasting impact of increased online shopping behavior is notable. While online shopping may have certain environmental benefits, such as reducing fuel consumption for trips to physical stores, it undeniably leads to a substantial increase in plastic waste generated through packaging (Ahamed et al. 2021).

Figure 2. Monthly online foodservice usage and food consumption. (A) Monthly usage of online food services, specifically food delivery. (B) Monthly consumption of online groceries, including drinks and food. Adapted and modified from the Korean Statistical Information Service (2023.

Figure 3. E-commerce growth trends: Parcel delivery and online shopping mall transactions. (A) Total volume of parcel deliveries by year. (B) Monthly transactions on the online shopping mall. Adapted and modified from the Korea Integrated Logistics Association (KiLA) (2023.

The pandemic also saw a surge in the use of medical supplies, especially personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves. For instance, South Korea experienced a monthly increase of 362 million masks compared to pre-pandemic levels, while China saw a monthly usage of 3.48 billion masks (Al Qahtani et al. 2021). Low- and middle-income countries used an additional 1.1 billion gloves in 2020 (Al Qahtani et al. 2021). Globally, a 57% increase in the use of medical PPE is expected post-COVID-19 (Shams et al. 2021). While precise data in scientific papers are still emerging, it is evident that the plastic waste problem has escalated considerably (Khoo et al. 2021). Even as the pandemic subsides, the substantial increase in plastic waste, particularly from disposable plastics and personal healthcare products, is overwhelming. This heightened plastic usage carries significant environmental implications, and improper waste management could lead to environmental pollution (Khoo et al. 2021). Moreover, there is a significant possibility that these altered consumption patterns will persist even in the post-COVID-19 or endemic era. This indicates the high possibilities of a continual increase in plastic waste generation due to the changed consumer behaviors. New and effective strategies for managing plastic waste during and after the COVID-19 pandemic are urgently required.

Introduction of plastic waste and recycling policies in South Korea

Surprisingly, South Korea has had relatively few policies specifically targeting plastic waste, despite its significant environmental impact. In 1995, the country introduced a volume-based waste fee system, which did contribute to a reduction in overall waste generation. However, the generation of plastic waste continued to increase sixfold over 15 years under this system (Yang et al. 2012). It took several years for this policy to fully establish itself (Container Deposit System Management Organization 2022). Nonetheless, South Korea currently boasts a recycling rate of about 59%, the second-highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, following Germany. In 2003, South Korea implemented an EPR scheme (Yoon and Jang 2006), which contributed to a reduction in waste generation. In 2016, the Framework Act on Resource Circulation passed the Korea National Assembly. This act marked a pivotal step toward resource circulation policy, aiming to reframe ‘wastes’ as ‘circular resources’ and enhance recycling (Lee and Kang 2016). However, these policies and acts were not exclusively focused on plastics but aimed at reducing waste generation for materials that couldn’t be effectively recycled.

In terms of plastic waste, South Korea introduced its first act related to plastic bags in 1999, which has been successful in reducing the use of plastic bags and promoting reusable shopping bags (Lee and Kwon 2021). In 2003, acts for charging deposits on disposable cups were initiated (Yun 2003). This act significantly increased the recycling rate of disposable cups used in coffee shops and restaurants to 40% (Container Deposit System Management Organization 2022). However, this deposit system was discontinued in 2009 due to opposition from merchants, including coffee shops and restaurant owners. In 2019, a new act completely banned the use of plastic bags in large supermarkets, making it impossible for consumers to purchase plastic bags in these stores (Lee and Jung 2019). In 2022, acts reintroducing deposit charges for disposable cups were implemented for Jeju Special Self-Governing Province and Sejong city. The recycling rate for disposable cups had declined from 40% in 2009 to 5% in 2018 (Container Deposit System Management Organization 2022). While these efforts are steps in the right direction, it is evident that South Korea has been striving to reduce the use of disposable plastics.

However, the introduction of these acts and policies has often encountered social barriers, as disposable bags and cups are convenient (Simmons and Widmar 1990). The initial act for charging deposit on disposable cups in South Korea lasted only six years due to opposition from coffee shop and restaurant owners. In 2023, the reintroduction of acts for charging deposit on disposable cups is facing social barriers, as people are hesitant to pay deposit fees (Teller Report 2023). Notably, 40% of applicants in Jeju Island declared their refusal to participate in these acts. These cases underscore the importance of cautious consideration when introducing new policies and acts for plastic waste management.

Global plastic waste and recycling policies: implications for local application in South Korea

As mentioned above, South Korea has a commendable track record in waste management and recycling, being the first country to introduce a volume-based garbage collection fee (VGCF) policy with free curb-side collection of segregated recyclable materials in 1995 (Park and Lah 2015). This innovative policy was a success in reducing waste generation, even though the boost in recycling rates proved temporary (Park and Lah 2015). Despite having robust policies that ban single-use plastic items like bags, straws, and stir sticks (Im 2022a), the use of plastic is still rapidly increasing in South Korea. Therefore, South Korea could learn from neighboring countries for future waste management strategies.

Japan, for instance, has been proactive in implementing policies related to plastic recycling, with the Containers and Packaging Recycling Law starting in 1994 (Ishimura 2022). While the systems are quite similar to South Korea’s, it’s noteworthy that Japan supplies plastic bags for garbage and recycling free of charge. While this system promotes sanitary waste collection, it might not significantly boost recycling in South Korea, where the disposal of recyclable materials is generally free. However, Japan still exports a substantial portion of plastic waste to other countries (Kuan et al. 2022), a situation similar to South Korea’s.

Thailand has implemented similar policies to South Korea, emphasizing the reduction, reuse, and recycling (3Rs) of plastic waste. Additionally, Thailand launched a “Plastic Debris Management Plan 2017–2021,” focusing on eco-friendly plastic substitution, inventory management of packaging, a strategy for plastic debris management, and educational initiatives for relevant stakeholders (Wichai-Utcha and Chavalparit 2019). South Korea could find the management of plastic debris in Thailand an instructive policy to consider. In 2023, South Korea has also introduced a special bill aimed at addressing the issue of microplastics (Korean Ministry of Environment 2023), though its primary focus is on health-related aspects. The importance of education cannot be overstated, and South Korea could benefit from enhancing educational approaches to reduce plastic emissions and increase recycling, such as mandatory industrial field education and reinforced educational initiatives in schools.

In the case of China, until 2017, it was the largest importer of plastic waste. However, since the Chinese import ban on waste plastics began in January 2018 (Gu et al. 2021), its contribution to recycling plastics has decreased. China has put significant efforts into reducing plastic waste disposal, including the ban on the import of non-industrial plastic waste since 2018 and the issuance of a policy by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China in 2020 for a gradual phase-out of non-degradable plastics and the improvement of production, consumption, recycling, and disposal mechanisms for plastic products (Sun et al. 2022). China even has ambitious plans, targeting a scenario where the net economic cost of plastic waste management becomes negative after 2028, implying that plastic waste management could generate revenue (Sun et al. 2022). While this goal might appear challenging, it could drive recycling rates to new heights if achieved. South Korea should consider setting similarly ambitious recycling goals, even if it requires additional budget allocation.

The European Union (EU) implemented the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) in 1994, achieving a recycling rate of 42% for plastic packaging waste by 2018 (Ishimura 2022). However, the EU exports plastic waste outside its borders, which wouldn’t be an ideal model for South Korea due to the ongoing issues of illegal plastic waste exports (Um et al. 2023). Nevertheless, the EU has set high recycling level aims, known as EU27 level (55% overall recycling rate), and provided substantial support to achieve these goals. South Korea should similarly aspire to achieve high recycling rates in the future.

In the United States, plastic recycling rates were less than 10% until recently (Di et al. 2021; Timmy and Smith 2020). While it’s challenging to locate recent or effective policies for plastic waste management in United States, efforts are being made to introduce health-related regulations targeting micro and nano plastics. Both the US Environmental Protection Agency (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2020) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are working on health-related regulations (Sorensen et al. 2023). Acts such as the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) are being used to address plastic pollution, indicating potential avenues for reducing plastic waste. South Korea does not currently have such acts but could look into adopting similar regulations in the future.

In our modern society, the urgent task of reducing plastic waste generation and increasing recycling is of paramount importance. Surprisingly, despite the increased use of disposable plastics and a decrease in recycling during the COVID-19 pandemic, public awareness remains insufficient. Plastics are linked to environmental contamination, public health issues, and even climate change, yet they remain a relatively overlooked concern.

With the emergence of the “endemic” phase as post-COVID-19, there’s a pressing need to reevaluate and work towards sustainable goals. South Korea already has a robust Resource Circulation Master Plan with key objectives centered around waste reduction, increased recycling rates, and reduced final disposal rates. However, the circumstance has drastically changed since the pandemic. The shift in people’s daily lives and consumption patterns has led to a surge in plastic waste, often in the form of non-recyclable packaging containers. Consequently, new policies and actions are essential to adapt to these evolving trends.

In this article, we’ve examined how plastic waste generation has evolved in the wake of COVID-19 and explored policies from other countries that South Korea can learn from. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the limitations of this paper and refrain from proposing new policies. Because, we believe that these complex issues can only be effectively addressed through extensive national discussions and policy changes, informed by researches like ours and driven by environmental movements. The critical challenges posed by plastic waste, the striking transformations seen during the COVID-19 period, and the diverse response policies presented in this paper are all instrumental in guiding South Korea towards a sustainable future. The time has come to heed these warnings and take action.

COVID-19: Coronavirus disease 2019

PET: Polyethylene terephthalate

HDPE: High-density polyethylene

PP: Polypropylenes

LDPE: Low-density polyethylene

EPR: Extended producer responsibility

PPE: Personal protective equipment

OECD: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

VGCF: Volume-based garbage collection fee

3Rs: Reduction, reuse, and recycling

EU: European Union

PPWD: Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive

FDA: US Food and Drug Administration

TSCA: Toxic Substances Control Act

US contributed to the study conception and data collection, and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. HP contributed to the data collection, statistical analysis and writing the final draft.

This research was supported by the Core Research Institute Basic Science Research Program through the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Ministry of Education (NRF-2021R1A6A1A10045235).

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