How do bottles of the trans-generational Korean liquor soju ― with different colors ― get recycled? Until 2009, it was unthinkable. This was why soju makers agreed that year to manufacture the bottles in green color with the same size and design so the makers can share each other’s bottles to recycle them.
The voluntary agreement ― not bound by law ― between the soju makers and the Ministry of Environment saved manufacturing costs. It also boosted recycling inside the industry, because used bottles of various brands collected and brought to each manufacturer’s yards could be recycled without sorting.
The eco-friendly and efficient system, however, hit a snag in April 2019 when Hite Jinro, one of the two liquor giants in Korea, launched a new soju brand “Jinro Is Back” ― in a transparent, colorless bottle with a less-curvy contour. Its different appearance from normal alarmed other parties involved in the “recycling pact.”
Jinro Is Back, Hite’s retrospective brand harking back to soju’s heydays in the pre-millennium era, sold fast, more than 100 million bottles in just seven months. In October that year, Muhak introduced another non-standard soju brand “Cheongchoon” ―― in a turquoise bottle. The recycling pact reeled heavily on the verge of collapse.
Lotte Chilsung Beverage, the other soju giant, no longer stayed quiet regarding the issue. In December, Lotte barked at Hite saying Lotte had to face unnecessary costs sorting out Jinro Is Back from their collected pool of used bottles and returning them to Hite. Lotte demanded Hite come and take back their bottles and pay for sorting out Jinro Is Back. According to Hankook Ilbo, about 2 million Jinro Is Back bottles were sorted out and piled up at Lotte’s breweries.
Hite, due to its flagship brand’s popularity, had to take its bottles from Lotte to meet the rising demand ― but they refused to pay.
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The two companies’ disputes continued, further dividing the industry. Lotte and others who supported the pact argued they took a heavy toll in terms of human labor, time, and physical space to sort out non-standard bottles. Unless properly sorted out, the pipelines also experienced mechanic malfunctioning. The other side argued that the pact was voluntary so they could make their products freely. Muhak and Hallasan, minor soju makers who have also been making non-standard bottles, sided with Hite.
Meanwhile, the environment ministry took the position of the bystander. It said that although it was concerned about the distribution of non-standard soju bottles, it could only recommend the soju makers reach an agreement on their own because the ministry cannot enforce the pact, which was non-mandatory.
With the rising number of non-standard soju bottles, the ministry and Korea Resource Circulation Service Agency (KORA) on Aug. 25, according to Korean news outlet Asia Economy, said the country’s 10 soju makers had discarded the pact and written a new agreement. They agreed to trade with each other one collected standard bottle with one non-standard one, and one non-standard collected bottle with another non-standard one. For non-tradable bottles, each company can exchange them with recyclable ones at KORA by paying fees.
Despite the new pact, an anonymous source from the industry told Asia Economy it was “concerning whether allowing the non-standard soju bottles instead of banning them would jeopardize the ministry’s eco-friendly policies.” The Korea Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM) on Aug. 27 also criticized the ministry for not intervening in the soju industry’s self-pact initiative to stop the non-standard soju bottles from being distributed.
“Because of the irresponsible and unwilling ministry, the central government and the industry players haven’t even established the least common ground to negotiate how to curb the increasing number of non-standard liquor bottles,” KFEM said. “It will worsen not just environmental but social and economic burdens, and may lead to another massive garbage fiasco in the country.”
Source: The Korea Times