(Yonhap Feature) Zero waste actions challenge food packaging, consumer culture
By Park Boram
SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- Consuming soy milk like a staple for years, Hur Ji-hyun, a 39-year-old upcycling designer, has always been troubled by a slim plastic straw that comes with every single serving of soy beverage.
Having never used the 15-centimeter straw wrapped in plastic and glued to the back of the pack, she was left with hundreds of them after several years of drinking soy milk.
One day in February this year, Hur decided to take action and sent the bundle of leftover straws back to the soy milk maker, along with a letter suggesting ideas to save plastics.
"I wanted them to know some consumers do not want the straw. And at the same time, I needed to dispose of them," Hur said.
Hur shared the story on social media channels. Like-minded consumers soon followed suit, with the personal mailing action evolving into a collective campaign toward two local dairy giants.
Dozens of people sent unused straws en masse back to Maeil Dairies Co. and Namyang Dairy Products Co. in February and June, respectively, reminding the companies that some of the straws they provide are unwanted.
"The price of soy milk must have factored in the cost of the straw. It's such a waste of resource and a source of pollution to produce things that are not used," Hur said on her Instagram account, which she runs under her pseudonym, Klarblau.
Including Hur, a growing number of consumers in South Korea are embracing the internationally influential "zero waste" principles that call for the reuse and recycling of products, opting for biodegradable products and reduction of trash sources, such as plastic straws.
Plastic straws are particularly tricky when it comes to recycling, according to Hur.
In the recycling process, loads of trash are strewn on a conveyor belt for people to sort them out by hand.
No matter how slowly the belt moves, small scraps such as straws go unpicked because of limits in the speed of human hands. Tiny bottle caps and small pieces of plastic similarly go unnoticed, though they are technically recyclable, according to Hur.
This month, she and her project team launched another zero waste campaign targeting food company CJ CheilJedang Corp.'s canned ham products that come with additional plastic lids.
"Most people find it unusual to make personal suggestions to companies and are not aware of their rights as consumers. They think it is unrealistic that their suggestions may actually be accepted, but I want to say they are wrong," the 39-year-old said.
"I want more consumers to realize what actual influence their actions can have on the world, especially on the environment and the products they consume," she said of her main motivation for the campaign. "How consumers react would also determine the products companies put on the market," she said.
All three companies reacted instantly to Hur and her fellow campaigners' calls.
Maeil's chief customer officer sent hand-written answers to them, pledging steps to redesign beverage packages and reconsider the ways straws are distributed.
Namyang went further by launching a project to install boxes at major places to collect straws for reuse, and scrapped a plan to attach straws to a beverage product line for children.
"By 2022, we will be eliminating all the plastic straws attached to beverage products," a Namyang official said.
Responding to the calls, CJ also removed plastic caps from some of the canned ham products the company put out in special packages for the upcoming Chuseok autumn harvest holiday.
"It's marvelous that many people joined me in what I started as part of my lifestyle. This may indicate that there's a growing need (for such changes) at this time," Hur noted.
Such waste prevention and recycling efforts by Hur are gaining ground in South Korea, with more consumers, companies and government agencies embracing the zero waste lifestyle.
Zero waste shops are popping up at many neighborhoods across the country, offering the options of non-plastic toothbrushes, shampoo bars instead of liquid shampoo that comes in plastic bottles, and reusable cotton wipes that can replace disposable tissue.
Some shops dispense liquid and powdered kitchen and cleaning detergents without packaging, so that consumers can bring their own containers to hold them.
A government arrangement also allows consumers to trade in used paper milk cartons for rolls of toilet paper or government-issued trash bags at local community centers.
At internet communities like Naver cafe Zero Waste Home, members share testimonies about their consumption experiments, such as using their own containers to pick up takeout food at restaurants and bakeries and rejecting free hangers at dry-cleaning shops.
"Plastic is indispensable in places like hospitals. But they should become optional in places where plastic is not necessary," Hur said, expecting such zero waste efforts to expand further down the road.
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