Is the K-Star Really Turning Around It’s Food Waste Problem? Lessons to Learn from South Korea

K-Pop, K-Drama, K-Fashion – the world is infatuated with South Korean popular culture. And fighting food waste has been another fascinating K-Story, that has turned South Korea into a food waste rising star. Yet has the country really been that successful at curbing the amount of waste it produces?

South Korea used to be the bad child of the developed world when it came to food waste. With an annual contribution of 135 kg per household, the country toppled both the EU and North America.

But has South Korea turned into a prodigy child?  Although the country has steadily climbed up the food sustainability index ladder it is mainly dues to its ultra-successful recycling program. With households wasting as much as 40% of all the total food they buy, the country has still a long way to catch-up with France, the world leader in food waste reduction. But what is all this K-Hype all about? We take a deeper look at the South Korean food waste story to see what takeaways we can make.

Tradition meats Affluence

“Unlike countries where meals are one-plate dishes, South Korean food culture is centred around banchan [a big variety of side dishes that accompany meals], which creates a lot of leftover food,” says Kim Mi-hwa, chair of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network for Huffington Post.

The traditional way of eating, combined with an increased standard of living in the 90’s, which goes hand in hand with food availability and affordability, lead to an enormous waste problem. Landfills quickly reached a tipping point in large metropolitan areas, such as Seul.  In 1995, only 2% of the biowaste was recycled. 10 years later, dumping food in landfills was finally banned and the government undertook an extensive recycling program.

The Up-front Tax on Garbage

In  2013, the recycling program received a boost through the introduction of compulsory biodegradable bags as the only available way for citizens to dispose of food waste, other than composting. Food bags are deployed in specially designated containers, which guarantee that food waste is not scattered but streamlined towards the recycling plants.

Starting from Seul, by today the program covers 16 other cities and provinces across the country. The special bags can be purchased from every supermarket or local convenience store. In fact, they represent a form of up-front tax, proportionate to the amount of food waste each household produces. This tax funds 60% of the collecting and processing operations. The rest is covered by the municipality.

The price of a single bag is the equivalent of 9 US cents and a typical 4 family usually spends approximately 6USD per month on food waste. So apart from a price tag, consumers also face a visual representation of the volume of their food waste  Monetary and visual awareness in turn act as a wake-up call to the intention of wasting less. Or do they?

Smart Technology

But Seoul boasts an even more efficient and advanced solution to waste reduction and taxation. Certain apartment districts and residential areas have been equipped with 6,000 automated large containers with built-in measuring scales and a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip reader.

People carry their garbage directly in a bucket, without a bag, like in the old days, and throw it into the container. The scale then weighs the garbage, calculates the fee and adds it to total the food waste bill which the resident has to pay at the end of the month. The data is recorded through plastic cards that residents swipe in front of a scanner.

Since the introduction of the smart bins in 2013, the districts have produced cumulatively 47,000 tons less food waste. The primary reason behind this huge reduction is that residents are motivated to remove all moisture from their waste. 80% of total food waste is in fact moisture. This, in turn, has led to saving in logistical expenses of about $8.4 million.

A Robust Recycling System

Today, South Korea recycle about 95% of its total food waste. The bags are first processed for squeezing out moisture that is then turned into bio oil or biogas that can be used as an energy source for operating equipment in the very same plants. Next, the dry waste matter is transformed into animal feed or fertilizers, that are utilised in the growing urban farm movement.

“I think there needs to be a perception that discarded food isn’t ‘garbage,’ but simply food that we couldn’t finish,” said Lee Kang-soo, head of the local government-run food recycling program in Seoul’s Songpa District for Huffington Post. “Only with this attitude can these ‘resourcefication’ policies work.”

But it the Problem Solved?

The enormous success of the recylcing programmes has virtually eliminated unrecycled food waste in South Korea. Which is great, as this largely eliminates the CO2 and methane emissions that are created from decomposed food in landfills. However, recycling does not eliminate the enormous economic and ethical impact of food waste and the huge ecological impact (such as soil depletion and degradation, deforestation, water waste, biodiversity endangerment) of producing excess food. If 40% of all produced food is wasted, this means that there is a 40% excess in food production, packaging, logistic, retail and other related costs.

Yet so far, all the above government and public efforts, have not addressed the issue at its source and have therefore not lead to a decrease in the amount of food that South Koreans actually throw away.  Measure like RFID, the biodegradable bags and recycling plants, only address the results of food waste, but not its cause.

“The RFID has nothing to do with actually reducing food waste,”says Lee Seokkil of Korea Food Recycling Association for Korea Expose.  “It’s just another way of dealing with waste that already exists.”

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – CIRCA MAY, 2017: goods on display at a CU convenience store. CU is a convenience store franchise chain in South Korea.

The Way Ahead

The cause of the problem according to Lee, is only halfway connected with traditional Korean way of eating, “there’s the Korean culture of serving more banchan than people can eat. In other countries, you have to pay extra for side dishes, but that goes against Korean sentiment. We need more publicity to change this culture, but I don’t the government has done enough on that front yet.”

But South Korean consumers face the same challenge as all rich countries all over the world, that overbuy and attach low intrinsic value to food. According to Lee,”a high percentage of food waste is due to people buying more food than they need, letting it go bad in the fridge, then throwing it away.”

Well, as with at CozZo know, public or no public policies, the way to reduce food waste is to be aware of what food you already have, buy only what you need and prepare and eat it in time. That is what the and philosophy are all about. But certainly, the rest of the World can learn a lot from the K-Model of successfully recycling the waste it does produce.

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