South Korea has a problem with food waste. The country produces about 130 kilograms of food waste per person per year, one of the highest rates in the world. But unlike many other countries, where most food waste ends up in landfills and incinerators, South Korea recycles close to 100% of its food waste annually.
The country achieved this remarkable feat by implementing a series of policies and practices that have transformed the way people dispose of their uneaten food. Since 2005, South Korea has banned food scraps from its landfills, and since 2013, it has required residents to separate their food waste from other trash and use designated bags or machines to dispose of it.
The system, known as jongnyangje, costs South Korea about $600 million a year, but it also saves resources and reduces emissions. The food waste is collected and processed into biogas, animal feed or fertilizer at various facilities across the country. The biogas is used to generate electricity or heat buildings, while the animal feed and fertilizer are sold to farmers or used for urban gardens.
The system has been studied by governments around the world, especially as food waste is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. According to the United Nations, about a third of all food produced globally is wasted or lost, accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing food waste could help mitigate global warming and improve food security.
South Korea’s success in recycling food waste is partly due to its cultural shift from a frugal past to a more affluent present. “We’re part of a generation from a far more frugal time,” said Hwang Ae-soon, a Seoul resident who composts some of her food waste herself. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the country was so poor that very little food actually went to waste. We ate everything we had.”
But as urbanization and industrialization increased in the following decades, so did the amount of food waste. The government responded by imposing regulations and incentives to encourage people to reduce and recycle their food waste. “The government has been trying to change people’s perception of food waste from something that should be thrown away to something that has value,” said Lee Ji-hyun, an official at the Ministry of Environment’s resource circulation policy division.
The system also relies on public participation and enforcement. Residents have to pay for the bags or machines they use to dispose of their food waste, which creates an incentive to reduce their waste. There are also penalties for noncompliance and rewards for those who report violators. “Political support for changing that was driven by people living near landfills, who complained about the smells,” said Kee-Young Yoo, a researcher at the government-run Seoul Institute who has advised cities on handling food waste.
While South Korea’s system is not perfect and still faces challenges such as illegal dumping and odor problems, it offers a model for other countries that want to tackle their food waste problem. “The South Korea example makes it possible to reduce emissions at a larger scale,” said Paul West, a senior scientist with Project Drawdown, a research group that studies ways to reduce carbon emissions. “We need to think about how we can reduce our consumption and production of food waste in the first place.”
– How South Korea Puts Its Food Scraps to Good Use, The New York Times, June 14, 2023
– South Korea has almost zero food waste. Here’s what the US can learn, The Guardian, November 20, 2022
– South Korea Offers Davos a Model for Recycling, The New York Times, May 21, 2022
– Waste Management Startups in Korea Changing How We Manage Waste, Seoulz, November 3, 2022