South Korea has almost zero food waste. Here’s what the United States can learn

Every few months or so, Hwang Ae-soon, a 69-year-old Seoul resident, stops by a local convenience store to buy a set of 10 special yellow plastic bags.

Since 2013, as part of South Korea’s mandatory composting program, residents have been required to use these bags to dispose of their uneaten food. Printed with the words “designated food waste bag”, a single 3-liter bag costs 300 won (about 20 cents) each. In Hwang District of Geumcheon-gu, curbside pickup is every day except Saturday. All she has to do is squeeze out the moisture and place the bag near the street in a special trash can after the sun goes down.

“We are just two people – my husband and myself,” Hwang said. “We throw away about a bag every week.” Hwang, an urban farmer who also composts some of her food waste herself (things like fruit peelings or vegetable scraps) guesses it’s probably on the lower end of the spectrum. “We are part of a generation from a much more frugal time,” she explained. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the country was so poor that very little food was wasted. We ate everything we had.

Things changed as urbanization intensified over the following decades, bringing with it industrialized food systems and new scales of waste. Beginning in the late 1990s, as landfills in the overcrowded capital neared their limits, South Korea implemented a series of policies to alleviate what was becoming seen as a waste crisis. The government banned the burying of organic waste in landfills in 2005, followed by another ban on dumping leachate – the putrid liquid extracted from solid food waste – into the ocean in 2013. Universal curbside composting was implemented the same year, requiring everyone to separate their food from general waste.

Hwang’s yellow bag will be transported to a processing plant along with thousands of others, where the plastic will be removed and its contents recycled into biogas, animal feed or fertilizer. Some municipalities have introduced automated food waste collectors in apartment complexes, allowing residents to forgo bags and swipe a card to pay the weight-based fee directly at the machine. In terms of numbers, the results of this system have been remarkable. In 1996, South Korea only recycled 2.6% of its food waste. Today, South Korea recycles almost 100% per year.

Workers sort waste at a waste recycling center in the Songpa-gu district of Seoul, South Korea.
Workers sort waste at a waste recycling center in the Songpa-gu district of Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Ease of use and accessibility have been key to the success of the South Korean model. “South Korea’s waste management system, especially in terms of collection frequency, is incredibly convenient compared to other countries,” says Hong Su-yeol, waste expert and director of Resource Recycling Consulting. “Some of my peers working in nonprofits overseas say disposing should be a little inconvenient if you want to discourage waste, but I disagree: I think it should be made as simple as possible as long as it goes hand in hand with other policies that address the problem of waste reduction itself.

In addition to daily curbside pickup, Hong notes the importance of balancing cost sharing and affordability. Food waste is heavy due to its high moisture content, which makes transportation expensive. In South Korea, yellow bag revenue is collected by the district government to help defray the costs of this process, effectively functioning as a pay-per-use tax. (In Hwang District of Geumcheon-gu, the yellow bag fee is about 35% of the total annual costs). “As long as the public’s sense of civic duty can accommodate it, I think it’s fine to charge a fee for food waste,” he says. “But if you make it so expensive that people feel the hit, they’re going to dump it illegally.”

In the United States, where most food waste still ends up in landfills — the nation’s third-largest source of methane — state and municipal governments are also heeding the growing need to recycle more of their discarded food. Earlier this year, California signed into law Senate Bill 1383, which mandates separate food waste collection in all jurisdictions with the goal of reducing organic waste going to landfill by 75% by 2025. New York City, which has long struggled to find a viable food recycling system on its own, recently launched its first boroughwide universal composting program in Queens.

Each of these experiences points in the right direction, but experts say there’s still a long way to go. Only nine U.S. states currently have some sort of organic waste landfill ban, while others are grappling with the high costs and logistical complexities of building new recycling infrastructure. “The way it goes is politics first, then infrastructure money, then making sure it’s collected at home,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFed, a non-profit organization focused on food waste. “Most cities are at the stage where they still need politics.”

A person throws trash into separate bins for recycling waste at a highway rest area in southern Seoul.
A person throws trash into separate bins for recycling waste at a highway rest area in southern Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

While it is ultimately up to states and cities to determine the specific recycling policies best suited to their unique environments, the South Korean model illustrates some of the fundamental principles that could guide this process. “When it comes to municipal organics recycling on a larger scale, in the United States, as in South Korea, convenience and cost-effectiveness are key to building political will and resident participation,” said Madeline Keating. , city strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. (NRDC).

Cities like Denver, for example, are exploring a volume-based pricing strategy similar to South Korea’s pay-as-you-go system. Ease of use, especially in the form of curbside pickup, is also key. “For households, you have to pick it up at home,” said Gunders, of ReFed. “There’s no way you’re going to reach critical mass if you have to take it somewhere.”

But there are also cautionary tales in the case of South Korea. Although centralized recycling facilities are needed to make a difference at scale – and currently much needed in the United States – some municipal facilities in South Korea are already at breaking points. And even though on paper, the food waste recycling rate in South Korea is close to 100%, there is still a need for more diverse recycling and end-use streams.

The viability of recycled food waste as animal feed has been undermined by livestock diseases such as avian flu and African swine fever, while compost-based fertilizers have struggled to find takers, even among the farmers who receive them free from the government. “We need more public markets, like municipalities buying this fertilizer to use for landscaping in public parks,” said Hong, the waste expert. “And we need more effort to compost at the source, developing many smaller models driven by resident participation rather than relying solely on mass processing.”

To this end, national and municipal governments in South Korea have actively invested in urban agriculture programs, which include composting classes and project grants.

“I think concerned citizens who compost their own food waste can be an important contribution to the recirculation of resources,” said Kwon Jung-won, a 63-year-old retiree who was recently hired on a part-time job by the city government. city ​​of Seoul as a fertilizer consultant. after completing a composting certification course. Funded in part by a grant, Kwon is currently teaching members of the Geumcheon-gu Urban Agriculture Network how to compost everyday food waste into fertilizer. “Doing this on a full-scale farm would make a big difference environmentally, and I see this project as a pilot project for that,” he said.

A person walks past a waste treatment facility in Seoul, South Korea.
A waste treatment facility in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

These kinds of community efforts could be where the United States can shine, increasing initial access to composting options in cities that currently have few other options and leveraging backyard composts that can feed the gardens. “These smaller-scale methods have the benefit of removing materials from the municipal waste stream by directly involving consumers and households in recycling their food waste, and often provide additional benefits such as job creation. and producing compost products that enrich the local soil,” said Madeline Keating of the NRDC.

The most sustainable approach to composting, of course, is not to see it as a silver bullet. No amount of recycling can replace the more basic solution of simply eliminating waste at source, and this is an area where individual effort – not high-tech solutions – can have the greatest impact. Examples of this could be not throwing away food just because it’s past its label date (it’s okay to trust your senses to determine whether it’s spoiled or not, experts say) and don’t over-buy or over-prepare food.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Keating said. “Each individual must examine why food is wasted in their own kitchen and find opportunities to prevent this from happening.”

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