Let’s “Go-Green” Together in Korea


In my recent trip to Seoul in December 2019, I found the above advertisement in the subway train – it is about saying “No’ to paper receipts in the shops and this is supported by big names like Lotte, Shinsegae, Emart and Home Plus.  In fact, South Korea has been implementing other eco-friendly policies, for example, waste sorting for both household and commercial entities. Recently, the South Korean Government has tightened up the policies against the use of plastic products and single-use products.  In this blog post, we will discuss some of the policies which may impact on the places where tourists usually visit.

Ban on Plastic Bags

South Korea has in fact imposed a ban on stores offering free plastic bags since 1999 but the ban was widely disregarded. Consumption of plastic bags in South Korea nearly doubled from 12.5 billion bags in 2003 to 21 billion bags in 2015. The typical South Korean uses about 420 plastic bags a year which is a very high figure compared to Finland with per capita average of 4 bags a year, and the EU’s average of around 200 bags a year (with intention to half that number within the next five years). The South Korean Government has recently stepped up efforts to ban the use of plastic bags.

Before April 2019, shoppers can either purchase plastic bags or get free ones from supermarkets at the check-out counters like Emart, Lotte Mart and Home Plus. Starting from April 2019, they could no longer do so because supermarkets, department stores, shopping malls and grocery stores larger than 165 square metres are prohibited by laws from offering disposable plastic bags, and only reusable bags or paper bags that are recyclable can be sold.  Furthermore, the smaller thin plastic roll bags available in the supermarkets for packing vegetables and fruits are also banned for all products except for products that can easily melt or leak like packets of tofu, seafood, ice-cream, or loose fruits, soil-covered vegetables, etc.  Shops violating these prohibitions will be subject to a fine of over USD2,600.

So, remember to bring your own shopping bags when visiting the shops and supermarkets in Korea.

Plastic-free Campaigns in Restaurants and Cafes

Since August 2018, the South Korean Government has imposed the rule banning the use of disposable plastic cups inside restaurants and cafes.  Plastic cups are only allowed for customers who get their drinks to go.  If the customers are provided with plastic cups without being asked, the restaurant or cafe will be fined up to USD1,800.  If a restaurant or cafe does not have enough reusable cups for its size, it is also considered as violating the rule.

Some stores go further to reduce the use of plastic straws as well.  For example, Starbucks has announced its plan to eliminate the use of plastic straws from all of its stores globally by 2020 and use straws made from other materials and recyclable lids not requiring straws. Some other stores use straws made out of paper, rice or bamboo, and stainless straws.  Even edible straws made out of rice and tapioca which is digestible with 50 calories per straw have been invented and if you choose not to eat the straw, it will decompose naturally within 3 months (vs. 500 years for plastic straws).

So, remember to bring your own coffee mugs/tumblers and refuse the plastic straws when you visit the restaurants and cafes in Korea.

The Seoul Upcycling Plaza 

On the other hand, there is a good place where eco-friendly friends can visit – the Seoul Upcycling Plaza which is the world’s largest cultural complex dedicated to upcycling (i.e., transforming used resources into new products). The complex was opened in September 2017 with 2 basement floors and 5 floors above the ground occupying a total floor space of over 16,000 square metres.  The entire upcycling process from material donation and collection, processing, production and sales is carried out there. There are also a shop selling upcycling and eco-friendly products, an education room for upcycling experience programs and environmental education programs, and an exhibition room for works by famous upcycling artists. You can get more detail by visiting the Seoul Upcycling Plaza website. You can also have a quick tour of the Seoul Upcycling Plaza by watching this video.

Next time when you visit South Korea, try to support their eco-friendly policies by bringing your own shopping bag and coffee mugs/tumblers, refusing plastic straws, visiting the Seoul Upcycling Plaza, and not requesting the paper receipts.  Happy going “green”! 🙂


Reminder: You can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  For flash news on Korean culture, you can also follow me in Twitter (Kalbi8888).


Oh Soo-young, “How to shop plastic-free in Korea, after plastic bag ban at supermarkets“, Arirang News, 2019-04-03

Oh Soo-young, “Supermarkets, large stores are banned from providing disposable plastic bags in Korea“, Arirang News, 2019-04-011

Kim Da-mi, “Korea’s coffee shops & cafes going ‘plastic-free’ “, Arirang News, 2018-08-31

Under new rule, disposable plastic cups only allowed for take-out drinks“, Arirang News, 2018-08-02

Starbucks to remove single-use plastic straws by 2020“, Arirang News, 2018-07-10

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