Every few months or so, Seoul resident Hwang Ae-soon, 69, stops by a local convenience store to purchase a 10-pack of special yellow plastic bags.
Since 2013, under South Korea’s mandatory composting program, residents have been required to use these bags to throw away uneaten food. Printed with the words “designated food waste bag,” a single 3-liter bag costs 300 won (about 20 cents) each. In Geumcheon-gu district of Hwang, curbside pickup is available every day except Saturday. All he has to do is squeeze out the moisture and put the bag on the street in a special basket after dark.
“We are just two people — my husband and I,” Hwang said. “We throw out a bag or so every week.” Hwang, an urban farmer who also composts some of her own food waste (things like fruit peelings or vegetable scraps) guesses this is probably on the lower end of the spectrum. “We are part of a generation from a much more frugal age,” she explained. “In the 1970s and 1980s, the country was so poor that very little food was actually wasted. We ate everything we had.”
Things changed as urbanization intensified in the following decades, bringing with it industrialized food systems and new scales of waste. Beginning in the late 1990s, as landfills in the crowded capital area neared their limits, South Korea implemented a series of policies to alleviate what was being seen as a garbage crisis. The government banned the burying of organic waste in landfills in 2005, followed by another ban on dumping leachate – the putrid liquid squeezed out of solid food waste – into the ocean in 2013. Universal curbside composting was implemented that same year , which requires 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, feed or fertiliser. Some municipalities have introduced automated food waste collectors in apartment buildings, which allow residents to forgo bags and swipe a card to pay the weight-based fee right at the machine. As far as numbers are concerned, the results of this system have been remarkable. In 1996, South Korea recycled only 2.6% of its food waste. Today, South Korea recycles almost 100% annually.
Ease of use and accessibility have been key to the success of the South Korean model. “South Korea’s waste system, especially in terms of collection frequency, is incredibly cost-effective compared to other countries,” says Hong Su-yeol, waste expert and director of Resource Recycling Consulting. “Some of my colleagues who work in non-profit organizations overseas say that disposal 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 attack the problem of waste reduction itself”.
In addition to the daily outside pickup, Hong stresses the importance of balancing cost sharing and convenience. Food waste is heavy due to its high moisture content, making it expensive to transport. In South Korea, yellow bag revenue is collected by the district government to help defray the costs of this process, effectively functioning as a tax that you pay as you throw away. (In the Geumcheon-gu district of Hwang, yellow bag fees pay about 35% of total annual costs). “As long as the public can accept it, I think it’s okay to charge a food waste fee,” he says. “But if you make it so expensive that people feel the hit, they’ll throw it away illegally.”
In the United States, where most food waste still ends up in landfills – the third largest source of methane in the country – state and city governments are also grappling with the growing need to recycle more of their discarded food. Earlier this year, California passed Senate Bill 1383, making separate collection of food waste mandatory in all jurisdictions with a goal of a 75% reduction in organic waste going to landfills by 2025 New York City, which has long struggled to find a working food recycling system on its own, recently introduced its first universal curbside composting program in Queens.
Each of these experiments points in the right direction, but experts say there is still a long way to go. Only nine US states currently have some sort of ban on landfilling organic waste, while others are grappling with the high costs and logistical complexities of building new recycling infrastructure. “That way, it’s politics first, then money for infrastructure, then making sure it’s collected at home,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of the nonprofit ReFed focused on food waste. “Most cities are at the stage where they still need politics.”
While it will ultimately be up to individual states and cities to figure out the specific recycling policies that best suit their unique environments, the South Korean model illustrates some of the key principles that could guide this process. “When it comes to large-scale municipal organics recycling, convenience and cost-effectiveness in the United States, as it is in South Korea, are essential to garnering political will and citizen 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-throw system. Ease of use, particularly in the form of curbside pickup, is also being basic. “For families, you have to pick it up at home,” said Gunders, of ReFed. “There’s no way to achieve critical mass if you have to get it somewhere.”
But there are caveats in the case of South Korea, too. While centralized recycling plants are needed to make a large-scale difference — and badly needed in the United States right now — some municipal plants in South Korea are already at their breaking points. . And while South Korea’s food waste recycling rate is nearly 100% on paper, there is still a need for more diverse end-use and recycling 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 fertilizer made from compost has struggled to find buyers even among farmers who receive it free from the government. “We need more public procurement, such as municipalities purchasing this fertilizer to be used for landscaping public parks,” said Hong, the waste expert. “And we need more efforts to compost at the source, expanding many smaller models driven by resident participation rather than just relying on mass processing.”
To this end, South Korea’s national and municipal governments have been actively investing in urban agriculture programs, which include composting courses and scholarships.
“I think concerned citizens who compost their food waste can be a major contributor to resource recycling,” said Kwon Jung-won, a 63-year-old retiree who was recently hired part-time by the Seoul city government as a fertilizer consultant after completing a composting accreditation course. Partly funded by a grant, Kwon currently teaches members of the Geumcheon-gu Urban Agriculture Network how to compost daily food waste into fertilizer. “Doing this on a large-scale farm would make a huge difference environmentally, and I see this project as a pilot for that,” he said.
These kinds of community-based efforts may 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 nourish gardens. “These smaller-scale methods have the benefit of removing materials from the municipal waste stream by involving consumers and households directly in food waste recycling, and often produce additional benefits such as job creation and the production of compost products that they 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 magic bullet. No amount of recycling can replace the more fundamental solution of simply eliminating waste at its source, and this is one area where individual effort, not hi-tech solutions, can have the greatest impact. Examples of this would be not throwing food away just because it’s past its labeling date (it’s okay to trust your senses to determine whether or not it’s spoiled, experts say), and not over-buying or over-preparing food. .
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Keating said. “Every individual must understand why food goes to waste in their kitchen and find opportunities to prevent this from happening.”