'Pay as You Waste': How South Korea is Cutting Back on Food Waste

Around 1.3 billion tons of food waste is accumulated each year worldwide. The one billion people that go hungry could easily be fed with only a quarter of the food waste that comes from the U.S. and Europe alone. Since 2005, South Korea has been the leading advocate for cutting down and repurposing their food waste in new and innovative ways.  

 

Pay as You Waste

Image: UN FAO

One of the ways that South Korea has started the change is by banning all food waste from ending up in any of their landfills. Head of the government-run food recycling program in the Songpa district of Seoul, Lee Kang-soo, is one of the contributors and organizers of more recent initiatives that are changing the way that South Korea handles food waste.

“I think there needs to be a perception that discarded food isn't ‘garbage’ but simply food that we couldn't finish. Only with this attitude can these ‘resource-ification’ policies work,” Kang-soo has said.

Seoul residents put their waste into yellow recycling bags, which they buy from supermarkets and local stores.

Max S. Kim

One initiative being implemented is called pay-as-you-waste. It requires residents to pay for the food waste they accumulate by discarding it in biodegradable bags purchased at local supermarkets. Residents fill the bags with food that they could not use or recycle and “throw” it away in mechanized bins usually in front of apartment complexes in the city. These machines weigh out the bags according to volume and the price that is paid is determined by the average income of a four-person family in Seoul. Usually residents only pay up to $6 per month. The taxes paid upfront when purchasing the bags pay for around 60 percent of the cost of collecting and processing the food waste itself.

Food waste trucks then collect the discarded food from the bins and it is then taken to one of the five recycling facilities around Seoul where it is dried and churned, creating a recycled byproduct of animal feed. This product also creates biogas, which is a mixture of methane and other gases the is used as a source of energy in Seoul. This biogas meets 90% of the countries electricity need.

 

Farming Communities in Seoul

Besides government  mandated initiatives, residents of apartment complexes  have come up with box gardens to reduce food waste and initiate recycling within the complexes that they are being built on. In some apartment complexes of Northeastern Seoul, such as Sanggye Hyundai Apartment in Nowon-gu, residents have come up with their own ways to recycle and reduce food waste within their communities. The basement of the apartment complex is growing their own produce of mushrooms to eat, distribute, and sell within the community complex, while also donating any profits to charity.

Another complex, Nowon Energy Zero housing complex, has a built its complex around energy efficient villas and apartments. The complex has also implemented a rooftop box garden area. The number of theses gardens has increased six times in the last seven years, creating roughly 170 hectares of farming land, equal to about 238 football fields.

Residents at Nowon Energy Zero housing complex in Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul, tend small box gardens earlier this year. / Courtesy of Nowon-gu Office

Lee Byung-Hun, a city official for urban farming projects, says, “We’re also providing hands-on garden experience and environmental education to children at urban farms set up next to kindergartens.” In order to create these close-knit communities of urban farming areas, resident usually must apply for financial and professional support from governmental offices.

Within just the last year, government officials have allotted 5 million won ($4,400) from the annual budget to each district to connect people who want to hear lectures and create personalized gardening solutions for their residential apartment communities with professionals. These farm clinics are held at 4,000 urban farm sites across 19 districts in Seoul and will be extended to 7,000 sites in upcoming plans.

Residents listen to a gardening instructor at an urban farm in Gwangjin-gu, eastern Seoul. / Courtesy of Gwangjin-gu Office

Besides contributing to a healthy environment by growing their own food in box gardens, Seoul citizens have also helped create a community within urban complexes that otherwise would not be there.

 

Below are some helpful links to learn more about food waste across the globe:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

World Economic Forum

These Policies Helped South Korea’s Capital Decrease Food Waste