Garbage disposal and waste management are invariably tied to climate change. With global waste output expected to grow 70% by 2050 to a projected 3.4 billion tons, tossers are no longer left with the question of the green bin or the blue bin—but also: Where does it go? Here, writer Elaine YJ Lee breaks down the cultural and economic factors that enable South Korea to achieve its status as the country with the best waste management—and the environmental challenges that remain.
It was years ago, but I distinctly remember it was a Saturday. “You can’t throw your trash here. It’s Saturday,” a woman said scoldingly, her voice coming from above my head. I was throwing out a bag of trash on the community stockpile in front of my house in Seoul, South Korea. I looked up to locate the voice, only to find a speaker attached to a security camera on a power pole.
Startled, but not wanting to take my trash back up my five-floor walk-up, I left it there and ran back into my house. I was lucky not to have been tracked down and penalized for violating district laws, which could have resulted in a fine of up to 300,000 Korean Won (or approximately $250 USD). But after knowing that someone was keeping watch, even on a Saturday, I never did it again.
When I moved back to Seoul after living in the United States for more than 15 years, one of the hardest things to get used to was throwing out the trash. “You can only throw out the trash on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” my roommate at the time told me. “And you need to buy jongnyangjae bags,” she explained, puzzling me even more. “Paper, plastic, and cans are compiled separately and thrown out on different days; food waste goes in a different color bag.”
I’d soon learn that if there is one country that is getting garbage disposal remotely right, it’s South Korea. For years, the country has shown how the government and its citizens can work together to push innovative solutions for garbage treatment. In the 2019 Global Waste Index, Korea ranked first place out of all 36 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for best waste management. In Eunomia’s 2017 report, it placed third in the world for highest recycling rates.
But South Korea wasn’t always a model country when it came to managing waste. In some ways, it’s still one of the most wasteful countries in the world, especially for food and plastic.
Consequences of an Economic Boom
After the Korean War, as Korea’s economy started to boom in the 1960s, an increase in general consumption led to an exponential increase in waste. From 1970 to 1990, municipal solid waste in Korea soared sevenfold from 12,000 tons to 84,000 tons per day.
There was a reason for food waste to increase in the 1980s, as well. In 1986 and 1988, respectively, Seoul hosted the Asian Games and the Olympics, which gave rise to the city’s first restaurant culture. Restaurants started to pop up all over Korea to serve foreign visitors, often offering dozens of colorful side dishes for free as an attraction. This originates from the concept of banchan, referring to the array of tapas-like side dishes in Korean cuisine, which stretches back thousands of years to the region’s Three Kingdoms Period. The more side dishes there were, the more formal or affluent the meal.
As Korea began to industrialize and modernize in the 1990s, restaurants stayed in business to serve a growingly sophisticated generation of locals, and the expectation for free banchan stayed. “The idea with Korean restaurants then was abundance—it was about demonstrating growth and economic achievement. Those banchan dishes are for show. Most of it goes to the garbage,” Sanghyun Ahn, owner of a Michelin-rated restaurant in Seoul, told The New Yorker earlier this year. (It’s still easy to find a meal in Korea for less than $10 with a full entrée, bowl of rice and stew, and several dishes of banchan.)
Mihwa Kim, chairwoman of Korea Zero Waste Movement Network (KZWMN), an NGO that works closely with the local Ministry of Environment, echoes Ahn’s sentiment. “It’s hard for food waste to be reduced in Korean culture because we eat several dishes in one meal,” she tells me. “We eat a lot of namul in our cuisine, and there is a ton of waste generated just from cutting up and preparing them.” Namul refers to seasoned herbal menus made with leaf or grass vegetables such as spinach, bean sprouts, or seaweed—all staple side dishes in everyday Korean meals.
“Our banchan culture not only perpetuates leftover food, but the process of preparing them, importing and transporting them are also very harmful for the environment,” Mihwa continues.
A sudden spike in consumption and waste posed a new threat to Korea, resulting in heaps of landfill dumps and unsanitary public conditions. To combat this, the Korean government imposed several new laws regarding trash disposal in the mid 1990s, which are still in effect today.
Government Action And Technology For Waste Management
In 1995, a volume-based waste fee (VBWF) system was introduced, where households are charged by the amount of garbage they throw out at a time. This is measured by the size of the trash bag used. Jongnyangjae, which literally translates to “pay-as-you-go,” refers to plastic bags that have to be purchased separately in order to take out the trash. If trash is not discarded in these bags, the garbage collector will refuse to take it for fear of penalization, and the responsible household may be fined up to one million Korean Won, or around $840 USD.
Jongyangjae bags are color-coded by trash type and user category, with leveled prices according to size. They cost anywhere from about two cents to $1.40 USD per bag, which varies by district. “In Korea, local governments are in charge of their own waste management administration, which is why the types of jongnyangjae bags and their prices vary so much,” Mihwa explains. “For example, in Seoul, which is the most expensive city in Korea, it costs about 100 Won (8 cents) per liter, whereas it might cost 20 to 50 Won in other cities.”
“Because these bags are taxed, higher prices for them are directly correlated to a higher quality of living in that district,” Mihwa adds. “The taxes for jongnyangjae bags go toward the government’s budget for waste treatment.”
The cost of having to purchase specialized trash bags incentivizes citizens to reduce the amount of waste they generate as much as possible. Once the VBWF system was implemented, Korea’s daily trash output decreased by more than 16% over 20 years, which is notable considering the increase in Korea’s population and consumption during the same period. Recycling rates tripled, to over 60%.
However, the introduction of jongnyangjae bags didn’t immediately solve Korea’s dumping problem. To avoid paying for them, many residents discarded their garbage illegally in public bins, which led to an overflow of trash on the streets. As a result, the government removed thousands of public trash bins, which is why it’s still so hard to find trash cans on the streets of Korea today—a common complaint among foreign visitors. Seoul, for example, only has about 1,000 public trash cans, compared to New York City’s 23,000.
A year after the VBWF system was introduced, the Korean government also banned the incineration and landfill dump of food waste, and funded the building of 260 factories over a period of 10 years to turn them into animal feed or fertilizer.
In 2013, Seoul introduced radio-frequency identification (RFID) machines for dumping household food waste, and installed 6,000 of them in apartment complexes and other residential neighborhoods within four years. Each household is issued a prepaid card with a unique identification number, which the machine scans when trash is thrown away to charge money by weight. To save these costs, households began to proactively dry and compost their own leftover food, resulting in a 25% decrease in overall food dumping.
Now, with animal feed and fertilizer factories, as well as RFID machines, Korea altogether turns 95% of the country’s total food waste into animal feed or fertilizer. “There is no other place that handles waste the way we do,” Mihwa says. “Many countries, especially others from Asia like China and Japan, visit us to learn of our infrastructure so they can apply them as a benchmark in their own countries.”
But South Korea could have never elevated itself as the world’s top waste manager by only enforcing government policies. There are also cultural factors that enhance Koreans’ general willingness to adhere to these rules.
Cultural And Economic Factors That Perpetuate Success
Even for Koreans who have spent most of their lives separating trash the way they do, the task of doing so can feel prosaic. The government’s guidelines for separating trash are extremely detailed (and strict). For instance: Plastic bottles, glass objects, and cans have to be recycled separately—and oftentimes discarded on different days of the week. For paper and cardboard boxes, all tape and labels must be removed before folding and adding them to communal piles. Hard food waste, such as eggshells, seashells and chicken bones, are not compostable and are therefore considered to be regular trash (which still causes confusion and is a common subject of debate among Koreans).
Imposing a fine when these rules are violated is not the only reason Koreans follow them so well. “Korea is a largely communal society,” says Yiseo Kim, campaigner at Greenpeace Korea. “There aren’t many countries in the world that have as many apartment buildings as we do.” According to data from last year, Seoul is the sixth most densely populated city in the world, which necessitates high-rise apartments that consist of hundreds of households per complex. “Because apartments are shared complexes, trash sites have to be regulated and kept clean,” Yiseo explains.
The concepts of nunchi and minpye that exist in Korean culture perpetuate good behavior in communal settings. Nunchi translates literally to “eye measure,” and refers to the ability to gauge how others feel to act or react accordingly. Minpye means “to aggravate” or “burden” others, which is social taboo to many Koreans. Koreans are often overly polite or apologetic in public settings, and having good nunchi so as not to inflict minpye on others is extremely important.
There’s yet another cultural link to Korea’s ability to recycle food so well: “Korea boasts excellent food recycling technology thanks to the makeup of our cuisine,” Mihwa explains. “Because Korean food is so based on stews and spices, recycling plants face the challenge of having to remove all the salt and spices before animals can eat them. This means that factories must constantly improve their filtering technology to stay competitive and in business.”
Despite South Korea’s relative success in waste management, however, it still has grave issues to tackle when it comes to generating and recycling waste. South Korea is one of the biggest consumers of plastic, even surpassing the U.S. and China for plastic use per capita, according to EUROMAP’s data from 2015. After China banned the import of foreign garbage in 2017, a new trash crisis erupted all over the world, including South Korea. Suddenly, the country was left to deal with all of its leftover garbage instead of simply shipping them off to China, leading to a local black market of illegal landfills and incineration grounds that still harshly pollute farming towns.
Southeast Asian countries also became new dumping ground after China’s ban. Korea started to export 10x more waste to the Philippines and 30x more to Thailand, most of them not even recyclable. It’s estimated that more than 90% of Korean plastic waste is discarded illegally, either haphazardly dumped or burned.
“Countries like the Philippines or Indonesia don’t have the infrastructure or facilities to properly treat waste,” Yiseo says. “Because plastic doesn’t erode for up to 500 years, when they are dumped in landfills or the ocean, it creates serious problems of pollution. Neglected garbage is detrimental to marine life and air quality.”
There are issues with food recycling, too. Even though 95% of leftover food in Korea is turned into animal feed or fertilizer, about 20 to 30% of them can’t be used. “Korea is a small country, so the places where these animal feed or fertilizer could go are extremely limited,” Mihwa says. “We simply don’t have that many animals to feed or land to fertilize. And when there is a virus like the swine flu or bird flu, feed made from recycled food cannot be used.”
So, what happens to the remaining food waste? There’s no choice but to incinerate it, which we know destroys the environment by expending energy and emitting harmful levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s the sticky part about trash. It’s here where Sweden leads with their system of converting steam from burned garbage into energy—up to 18 megawatts of electricity.
“It’s also tricky to rank countries’ performances on waste disposal since there is no unified standard or proper measuring scale to compare them,” Yiseo says. “For example, each country has their own method of calculating recycling rates. South Korea includes plastic used in energy recovery as part of its recycled bundle, whereas other countries may separate energy recovery from recycling.” Statistical data and reports on waste management don’t necessarily paint the whole picture.
Despite being ranked #1 in waste management, the Korean system is far from perfect. Its contemporary thinking exemplifies not just strides in trash tech, but how far so many other countries have to go. And the main takeaways don’t stop at a global need for financial investments in waste management, desperate calls to engage in circular systems that already exist, or simply awareness—it’s that what we leave behind isn’t just trash; that our solutions to surmounting problems might go beyond the physical, too.