North Korea faces serious plastic waste problem

Plastic pollution.

Dealing with plastic waste is a big challenge in North Korea, multiple academic studies stated. A recent study published in Science Advances journal said the amount of mismanaged plastic waste generated is about 322 metric tons per year. The ratio of its annual plastic waste to mismanaged plastic waste was 15.51 percent, which was the second-highest out of 166 countries studied, right after Brunei (19.36 percent). 

Mismanaged plastic waste is plastic which is at high risk of entering the ocean via wind or tidal transport, or carried to coastlines from inland waterways. Mismanaged plastic waste is the sum of material which is either littered or inadequately disposed.

Although North Korea has a smaller land surface area (122,500 ㎢) and shorter length of coastal line (2,495 kilometers), it still generated more plastic waste compared to other countries studied.

According to 2015 research in the Science journal, from a study of coastal regions where a minimum of 100 residents live within 50 kilometers of the ocean, the authors stated that North Korea ranked 19th for the amount of mismanaged plastic waste.

Lacking raw resources, North Korea has been importing plastic waste from other countries for reuse.  However, such a practice is illegal under the Basel Convention, a treaty that manages global waste, signed by 188 countries and came into an effect in May 1992. The treaty bans transporting and trading harmful waste between and among countries. 

Also, it is now more difficult to export plastic waste that consists of mixed materials to other countries with new amendments to the Convention, as it now requires a more complicated process to receive approval for trading.

Nonetheless, a study by Korea Development Bank found that last year, plastic waste sent to North Korea included plastic bags, resin, tires, batteries and electronic products.  North Korea collected reusable items from the waste and used the rest for energy production. 

As North Korea is a poor country, domestic consumption is not a primary cause of the plastic waste problem, unlike in other developing and rich countries.  Disposable plastic items are still used but in general North Koreans do not use plastic items that much.  For example, North Koreans use reusable containers and utensils for food and stores pack items like eggs with straws.

Soo Kim, a former investigator with the Central Intelligence Agency, told Radio Free Asia that environmental problems, such as plastic waste, have lower priority for the government as Kim Jung Un, the supreme leader, focuses on the survival of the regime above anything else.  Soo added that the government lacked the infrastructure to handle contaminants.

Photo credit: iStock/helivideo

Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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