Food waste thrown out with general waste has plummeted to less than three percent. How did South Korea become a world leader in managing food waste?
Donghyuk Jang, a resident of Goyang city in South Korea’s capital area, takes a bag of food waste twice every week to the apartment block garbage bin. This is no ordinary trash can, however. When Jang scans his residential card, the lid opens. He dumps the bag’s contents into the bin, and pushes the ‘close’ button. A friendly voice says, “You have thrown out 2,350 grams. 148 won [11 US cents] has been deducted.”
“It’s an automatic food waste collector. It’s been around for a while, actually,” Jang tells me. “I know how much I’m throwing out, and since I pay by weight, I try not to make food waste in the first place.”
In the past 10 years, South Korea has placed automatic food waste bins, also known as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) bins, in close to 170 municipalities including Goyang. It is the latest step in the country’s widespread and ambitious food waste reduction programs, which have made the country a world leader in addressing the issue.
Although Jang uses RFID bins, most people throw out food waste in designated plastic bags, which cost 350–790 won (roughly 25–60 cents) per 20 liters, depending on your municipality. The income from these bags is used to manage food waste, easing the burden on the municipal budget. In Goyang city, this supports roughly a third of the city’s maintenance fee. Paying proportionally to one’s amount of food waste encourages people to reduce it and gives them a sense of how much they throw out. Additions like Goyang city’s RFID bins further this realization.
Pickup itself is also very convenient. Even for those who don’t live in apartments, municipal trucks go door to door every few days to pick up waste bags. This allows people to ‘feel’ how much trash they are throwing out while remaining a convenient method of disposal.
Getting used to a new system is not easy, however. “In 2013, some people would throw out food waste in subway stations,” said Mi-Hwa Kim, secretary-general of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network (KZWMN). She campaigned for the initiation of Korea’s food waste policies starting in 1997, along with many other activists, NGOs, and journalists. “We launched demo projects in cities like Jeonju in 2008. Trucks fitted with RFID machines would go around regularly, picking up compost from homes and restaurants.” Jeonju reduced its food waste to less than 50% during the three-year project launched by KZWMN — which, along with some other successful projects, finally convinced the government to launch the new policy.
“When the government agreed to food waste VBWF, we started groundwork in advance,” Kim said. “We asked the press to write how much the new system reduces waste and how food waste management is a global trend. We also gathered civil servants to discuss what specific systems will be appropriate for various housing, and talked with RFID bin companies, who had just begun producing.”
South Korea has been working at this for decades. In 1995, the country implemented the Volume-Based Waste Fee (VBWF) system to address the trash crisis in landfills around the capital city of Seoul, which was growing rapidly. At roughly that point, only 2.6% of all food waste was recycled.
In 2005, burying organic waste in landfills was banned. In 2013, the VBWF system went a step further and required that people dispose of food waste in specific bags rather than in general waste. Consequently, as of 2020, the percentage of food waste kept out of landfills had risen to 97.6.
Financial incentives and convenient pickup have contributed to this success.
But Mi-Hwa Kim also credits the Christian communities in Korea, which includes more than 30% of the population, in helping change public opinion about food waste recycling. “Churches all over Korea ran campaigns with us, like using worms to make compost and ‘no waste bin’ actions,” Kim says. “I don’t think we could have succeeded without them.”