Globally, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. In the United States alone, 30-40% of the food supply is thrown out due to spoilage during the production process, culling of blemished items, exposure to pests, and consumer waste from buying and preparing more than is needed. Biodegrading food waste accounts for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions because it emits methane, a gas with 20 times higher warming effect than carbon dioxide. Despite the impact of food waste on the climate, most governments around the world prioritize recycling plastic, paper, and metal over organic waste. South Korea represents an outlier which has directed public policy focus to the problem of food waste and recycles 95% of it today.
Tackling food waste was not a low-hanging fruit for policymakers. South Korea’s culinary tradition includes a variety of side dishes called “banchan,” popular items like kimchi, fish cakes, and blanched spinach. Cultural expectations led to restaurants both making more banchan and wasting them, contributing to an average of 130 kg of food waste per person per year.
The Korean government prioritized reducing food waste by creating the infrastructure needed to manage it, taking time to study barriers to implementation, liaising with restaurant owners, educating the public before the rollout, and eventually enforcing noncompliance. The carefully planned stages of implementation helped get the public on board with the scheme, which in turn increased public trust because residents experienced how efficiently the food waste management system functioned.
Since the mid-1980s, the Korean government has been pursuing waste management strategies aimed at putting the onus on producers to reduce waste at the source. The Wastes Control Act, enacted in 1986 and amended in 2007, stipulates the role and responsibilities of consumers and producers in waste management, and calls for the environment minister to devise a plan for waste management around the country every 10 years. The volume-based waste fee system, introduced in 1995, made producers responsible for the waste they generated by mandating that they pay the cost of disposal, which led to a 23% reduction in domestic waste.
In 2005, the Korean government outlawed throwing food into landfills. Five years later, they launched a food waste disposal pilot program, where residents in 144 local regions were held financially accountable for the food waste they generated. During this time, the government was building the infrastructure for a national food waste disposal system. In 2013, it was rolled out and every Korean resident was required to dispose of their food waste properly and to pay for it by weight. The government imposes fees for noncompliance.
Under this system, residents in urban areas such as Seoul can take their food waste down to a bin that opens by RFID chip. The person scans their chip, the lid opens, they put in their food waste, it is weighed, and the resident is charged based on the weight. In other areas, residents buy biodegradable bags in which to keep their food waste. They dispose of the bags in a designated bin near where they leave other waste such as trash and recycling. The cost amounts to an average of $6 a month per household.
Just as waste management workers come to pick up regular trash and recycling, there are designated food waste trucks that pick up organic waste on a weekly basis. It is then taken to a facility that processes it, separating the liquid, which makes up approximately 80%. This liquid is then turned into biogas. The solid scraps are used as compost and to feed livestock.
33% of the world’s cropland is used to grow food for livestock. Land, largely forest and grassland, converted for agriculture has contributed the greatest amount to greenhouse gas emissions throughout history. It also erodes soil and causes biodiversity loss. Feeding livestock through food waste saves money and farmland, which is scarce in Korea, and if more countries implemented food waste schemes that fed animals being raised for slaughter, less land would have to be cleared and made into farmland.
Though the scheme has been in place for only a decade, Koreans are now accustomed to disposing of their food waste separately. The system is streamlined, simple to understand, and reliable. The investment in the infrastructure reflected the government’s priority to make it as easy as possible for residents and restaurants to dispose of their food waste. Policymakers made sure the waste would be used for practical purposes and took time to inform the public about how the scheme worked.
The Korean government is investing in more innovative ways to use the food waste the country produces. In 2020, German firm Weltec Biopower was awarded a contract to build a 7-megawatt food-waste-to-biogas plant in Gyeonggi Province, which will generate heat. The investment was part of former President Moon’s Green New Deal which aimed to increase Korea’s share of power generation through renewables. Earlier this year, a food-to-biogas hydrogen fuel station opened in Chungju. Korea has been ramping up investment in its hydrogen energy sector.
Korea’s streamlined waste management systems and investment in innovative green technologies is influencing other countries to follow suit. Earlier this year, Korea ranked #10 on the MIT Green Futures Index, which ranks countries based on their ability and commitment to develop a sustainable, low-carbon future. Korea received praise at Davos because the government is constantly seeking ways to improve waste management and recycling systems.
Other nations have implemented policies to keep food waste out of landfills. Sweden has a large-scale composting and energy generation scheme. In 2016, France outlawed supermarkets throwing out unsold food, mandating that they donate it to charities. But few countries have national schemes similar to Korea’s where food waste is managed on a large scale.
Climate change policies often focus on renewable energy and electric vehicles. However, focusing on food waste management could bring emissions down further and faster than some of the more technologically intensive options that require difficult trade-offs such as mining rare earth metals.
Sarah Marshall is a graduate student in the U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security Program at American University’s School of International Service. She lived and worked in South Korea for 3 years where she began studying the conflict between the two Koreas closely. Her research focuses on China’s influence on the Korean peninsula and how it affects U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region. Additional areas of interest include Korea’s role in the global renewable energy transition, industrial workplace safety and labor rights, and how democracies can become stronger amid the global arc towards authoritarianism.
The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Photo from user revi on Wikimedia Commons.