“Throw-away Republic of Korea” (Joongang Daily, June 9, 2014)

The Joongang Daily

June 9, 2014

“Throw-away Republic of Korea”


Emanuel Pastreich


Although I love coffee, I can hardly stand to go into a coffee shop and order a coffee to go in Korea. The coffee itself is delicious. But it is served in a paper cup covered with a plastic lid and wrapped in a sleeve made of unbleached paper that was perhaps intended to keep you from burning your fingers on the hot cup – but in almost all cases is unnecessary. A thick stack of 5 to 10 paper napkins, a plastic device for stirring and cream and sugar in separate packages are also stuffed in the paper bag along with other goodies such as a wet wipe.

In this age of diminishing resources it is painful to see such a tremendous waste of materials in Korea. What is disturbing is that most Koreans do not even seem to see anything wrong with such practices. Customers almost never say that they do not need certain things (that they do not need so many napkins, or that they will not use the sugar). The person behind the counter never asks the customer whether he or she needs all the products – in many cases the server does not even suggest that a person drinking the coffee in the shop should use a mug instead of a paper cup if the drink is not to go. Many stores opt not to offer any mugs at all so that they can save money by eliminating the space for washing the mugs inside the store.

Many times when I ask that the coffee be put in the plastic mug I carry with me, I receive puzzled looks. When I return the plastic spoon and extra napkins, I am stared at in bewilderment.

It seems almost as if Koreans think that being modern and advanced means consuming things without a thought as to the consequences that such consumption has for the Earth. Maybe some people think that the whole point of drinking coffee is to lose oneself in an exciting and pleasurable moment without any concern for what the implications of one’s actions might be for the ecosystem, or for human society.

It is a twisted interpretation of the term “freedom.” The noble goal of realizing one’s own spiritual potential has degenerated into a fevered rush to consume food without any particular goal and without an awareness of one’s impact on the world. And now that Korean culture so profoundly influences the cultures of China and Southeast Asia, the cost is even larger. If Koreans see wasting resources as an essential part of modern life, then so too will others around the world who view Korea as a benchmark for development.

Cutting down trees to create paper for coffee cups reduces the amount of trees available to transform CO2 into oxygen and save our planet. The utensils needlessly wasted means that more petroleum is used to create those plastics and more substances that do not decay easily are introduced into the environment. One person’s consumption is not significant, but the aggregate of the waste of paper, plastic and food itself is frightening.

Sometimes I think some people get a pleasure out of wasting natural resources. Somehow it just does not feel like a modern lifestyle if you do not receive all of those throw-away things. If you had to bring your own napkin, or if you had to wash your own cup, or if you could not conveniently throw everything in the trash can without sorting it when you are finished, life would be less convenient and less fun.

But these wasteful habits have nothing to do with original Korean culture. Korean culture was originally about conservation, about rationality in consumption and about a deep commitment to true sustainability for the future. Koreans traditionally valued every single grain of rice and frowned upon the waste of even the slightest bit of food. In the traditional Korean household of a hundred years ago, literally everything was recycled, or it was designed so that it simply degraded into soil again. Even the feces and urine from private homes was recycled into fertilizer for crops.

We tossed away that traditional emphasis on sustainability because we thought it was a backward practice from our past.

But we were unaware of just how wise the Koreans of the Joseon period truly were. They thought far into the future when they administered the Joseon Kingdom, planning a system that would last for 500 years; today we cannot think much further than the next election, or even further than the next pay check. Let us cast off this throw-away Republic of Korea and return to a sustainable kingdom that will outlast all of the so-called advanced nations.


By Emanuel Pastreich





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