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South Korea – population 51 million – was plagued by colossal amounts of food waste, so much so that landfills were collapsing. Through grassroots, government and technological initiatives over the past two decades, South Korean has managed to move from recycling 2% of its food waste to an astonishing 95%.  


Here, Kim Mi-Hwa explains how the nation pivoted to being a world leader and the lessons we can learn from its transformation.   


Chair of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network

Ingrained within Korean culture is banchan, the customary and numerous side-dishes of kimchi, fish, pickles, pancakes and much more that accompanies meals. Although delicious, the excess and waste from these small plates meant that previously, someone in South Korea was producing about 300g of food waste per day. 

Prior to 1996, most of this food waste was buried. However, residents close to landfills understandably suffered from the odour, and the sheer amount of it being deposited everyday due to increased living standards would often lead to the landfills collapsing.  


Environmental groups such as the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network and local citizens began to demand that food waste be banned from landfills, with some taking matters into their own hands by striking and lying down in the street to block trucks and galvanise action.  


After lengthy discussions with concerned groups, the government responded by introducing an Act that prohibited food waste going to landfill and started a system to recycle all food waste. Since 2005, depositing food at a landfill has been officially banned, and in 2013, it was made compulsory to use biodegradable bags for food waste. Households pay a small fee for these bags, which covers over half of the cost of the scheme.  


In South Korea, as well as introducing compulsory household food waste recycling.  

we have adopted innovative technologies like smart bins and boosted local food production by setting up urban farms,  


In 2013, the district Songpa began to use automated bins fitted with scales and used electromagnetic fields to measure waste, charging residents fairly and accurately. 

There are as many as 6,000 in Seoul now, and these pay-as-you-recycle bins incentivise people to not only reduce waste but to remove liquid from it first, as food waste is mostly comprised of moisture.  


This reduces both cost for the user and for the city itself, with the latter saving $9.6 billion in logistical charges over a period of six years thanks to resident’s efforts of moving from 300g of waste to 230g per day. This excess moisture can now be converted into biogas and bio oil at many of our nationwide treatment plant. 


Meanwhile, the recycled waste is turned into fertilize and creating a boom in urban gardens.  


Our capital now contains a total of 170 hectares of urban farms and community gardens, a six-fold increase in as many years.  


They can be found hiding in basements, on roofs, in housing estates, schools, with some residents even donating the profits of their produce to local charities and welfare centres.  


This boom is in part thanks to the generous backing of the local government, which often fronts the entire start-up costs for these projects. In 2018, it went a step further by allocating a £5 million annual budget to each of our 19 districts in order to provide ‘farm clinics’, lessons provided by professionals to improve yield and farming knowledge.  


These efforts create a virtuous circle, bringing communities together through shared allotments and group learning, while providing home-grown food and compost. In a country that was jettisoned into the 21st century, experiencing incredibly rapid urbanisation and upheaval, it is not only a welcome respite from hurried city life, but an innovative and creative link to our rural past.     


Nevertheless, there are outstanding problems we must grapple with. Many compost and feed facilities installed 20 years ago are obsolete and require updates, contaminated animal feed sometimes leaves farmers with nowhere to go when they rely heavily on waste-made feed or compost, and food waste discharged in a plastic bag remains difficult to break down.  


Crucially and culturally, we must also begin to adapt our eating habits, recognising that a Western one-plate culinary habit versus banchan may be beneficial to our long-term efforts.   


Despite these challenges, there is much to be proud of. Over the past two decades, an infrastructure has been built that can handle 15,000 tons per day through 260 resource facilities, creating a breakdown of 30% compost, 60% fodder and 10% energy.  


Environmental organisations and grassroot movements have been integral in establishing this fundamentally new system, tirelessly conducting educational campaigns and public relations activities for the people of South Korea. In turn, citizens have risen to the challenge by taking responsibility for, and joy in, the reduction of food waste.  


At this moment in time, NGOs are campaigning to reduce food waste by a further 50% – an ambitious target by any means. There is a common Korean proverb, shijagi banida, which translates to starting is the hardest half. Since we have already begun in earnest, let us continue with pace.  

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