Author: Bernhard J. Seliger (Resident Representative at Hanns Seidel Foundation Korea)
When in June for one week the so-called Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) conventions took place in Geneva, hundreds of delegates from all 188 participating countries in these three leading multilateral environment agreements came together to discuss how to better govern chemicals and waste management, in order to protect human health and the environment. South Korea sent a delegation and North Korea, where currently no traveling can take place due to the self-isolation against COVID-19, was represented by its Geneva embassy. One of the urgent topics discussed was ways to reduce plastic waste.
Since 1950, approximately 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste have been generated, of which only 12 percent has been incinerated, less than 10 percent recycled and nearly 80 percent either discarded or landfilled. Unfortunately, this not only takes precious land away from more productive uses, but a lot of plastic waste also ends up in the world's oceans. This is, where in particular the Basel Convention tries to intervene. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environment treaty on hazardous and other wastes and is almost universal, with 188 parties. It was founded in 1989.
At the heart of the Basel Convention is a regulatory system to control transboundary movements of covered hazardous and other wastes, through a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure. The convention also offers avenues for all parties to take collective action toward minimizing the sources of plastic waste generation and promoting environmentally sound management. In the future, countries have to submit all information regarding the trade of plastic waste to the convention in regular updates. The European Union, for example, in 2020 exported 2.37 million metric tons of plastic waste, mostly from Germany, and mostly to Turkey. In the future, this amount will be better known, controlled and hopefully strongly reduced.
South Korea is a country with a particularly high amount of plastic waste, and though since some years ways to reduce plastic waste are discussed, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased the used of plastic wrapping for hygienic reasons. It might be surprising to think that this topic is also relevant to North Korea. Indeed, plastic waste, like most other waste, was almost unknown in North Korea 20 years ago. When I visited North Korea in 2011 with an expert on biogas, which can be produced from organic matter, but also inorganic matter, we looked into the waste facilities. These were mostly landfills, and moreover real waste dumps, where waste was carried by trucks or handcarts and dumped in places without any environmental safeguards. But the amount was so small that even for mid-sized cities, not to talk of individual companies, biogas was out of the question.
When we drove into the countryside to visit projects on sustainable development and biodiversity, our North Korean partners sometimes would throw plastic bottles or cans just out of the car into a river or forest. Our complaints about that behavior were met with a lack of understanding. And indeed, on these roads rarely traveled with sparse population it did not matter. But things changed rather fast. In Rason, the special trade zone adjacent to Russia and China, by 2010 a massive inflow of Chinese goods began, and all of them were wrapped in plastic. Soon, even in the countryside, outside of small villages, heaps of plastic waste could be seen, still small, but growing year by year. And observant visitors to South Korea's beaches in the northern part of the country, in Gangwon Province or the outlying islands in the West Sea, find year by year more North Korean waste.
Collecting this waste has become a kind of sport for some North Korea watchers, since it gives some clues about new companies, brand names and products. And while Chinese waste still is prominent, more and more also North Korea homemade waste was washed ashore. By now, one professor from Busan, Kang Dong-won of Dong-A University, wrote a whole book about this waste. Unfortunately, besides being interesting to researchers, it is a sad story. Plastic debris can be found in all oceans around the world by now. Every year, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic winds up in the ocean. And microplastics are found in fish, seafood and sea birds, causing diseases and contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
The growth of North Korean plastics waste is related to the fact that North Korea under Kim Jong-un actively tried to rehabilitate consumer industries, with some success, and for that imported packaging material and packaging machines from China. In North Korea, the production of plastic is still minimal, it is mostly imported. But North Korea, like South Korea and the rest of the world, needs to find better ways to reduce plastic waste. While the value of plastics to improve hygiene and make life more comfortable should not be overlooked, some of the waste could easiest be avoided, as the frequent double or triple wrappings used in South Korea. Other waste could better be incinerated, but the silver bullet really is recycling. While still being expensive today, in the future plastic waste could be transformed into biogas or biofuels. The technologies to do so exist, though are not yet on a large-scale marketable.
This is one of the environmental problems North and South Korea share and where cooperation of both sides could be beneficial. As North Korean wastes end up in South Korea, so it is the other way round, and both South and North suffer from plastic pollution in the surrounding seas. South Korea has a great scientific head start compared to the North, and it could help North Korea find practical and adapted ways to reduce plastic waste. This is one of the many fields, where "green detente," the environmental cooperation between North and South desired by the new South Korean government, could become reality.
But first, South Korea has to find ways for its own plastic problem: for example in agriculture, where black plastic sheeting used to prevent the growth of weeds unfortunately ends up for decades in trees, rivers or fields, or in consumer industries, where wrappings are often redundant. The government can act to reduce wastes by law and has to do so; but even more important is a change of consumer attitudes. Too often the seemingly faultlessness of glitzy plastic wraps influences consumption decisions.
To change this, government, industries and consumers should join hands ― and these should also be outstretched then toward the North neighbor, for the common good of the Korean Peninsula.
Dr. Bernhard J. Seliger is resident representative of Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) in Korea, based in Seoul. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, he frequently traveled to North Korea, where he implemented projects on forestry, environment and renewable energy as well as medical cooperation. He is honorary citizen of Seoul and Gangwon Province.