South Korea cuts food waste with 'pay as you trash'

South Korean housewife Cho Sung Ja using an RFID food waste disposal system that is able to weigh how much trash each household generates and bill it accordingly. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and son in Mapo, a mid-sized di
South Korean housewife Cho Sung Ja using an RFID food waste disposal system that is able to weigh how much trash each household generates and bill it accordingly. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and son in Mapo, a mid-sized district in Seoul. PHOTO: KIM JINHA
South Korean housewife Cho Sung Ja using an RFID food waste disposal system that is able to weigh how much trash each household generates and bill it accordingly. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and son in Mapo, a mid-sized di
Mr Choi Ho Sik, CEO of Smart Cara. The company's food waste processors for the home break down food into a powder that can be used as fertiliser or fuel for open-fire cooking such as barbecuing.PHOTO:SMART CARA

Country has adopted creative ways to manage food waste problems and promote recycling

Moving to South Korea from the US in 2012, English teacher Michelle Svensson was shocked to find that she had to separate her food waste and dump it in a centralised bin within her apartment compound.

"It's kind of disgusting," said the 29-year-old half-Swedish, half- Korean mother of two.

"My husband and I really hated taking the food waste out because it'd smell so bad and it's so embarrassing to go into the lift when there are other people inside."

 
  • Similar battles elsewhere in Asia

  • South Korea is not alone in the battle to reduce and recycle food waste.

    Japan, well known for its recycling efforts, turns one-third of its six million tonnes a year of commercial food waste into animal feed, while a further 640,000 tonnes are made into fertiliser.

    Japan is also working with Malaysia to try and reduce the 16,000 tonnes of food waste generated daily in the South-east Asian country. The collaboration that started in 2010 includes centralised food waste treatment and implementing recycling regulations.

    Meanwhile, Taiwan collects leftover food to feed livestock, with about two-thirds of its 610,000 tonnes of food waste churned out last year being turned into food for 5.5 million pigs in farms.

    Singapore, which recycles 13 per cent of its food waste, is also trying to do more by starting a pilot on-site food waste recycling system at two hawker centres that could cut their daily waste of two to three tonnes each by up to 80 per cent. Singapore dumped 785,500 tonnes of food last year, 3,100 tonnes less than the previous year.

The couple have since invested in a food waste processor that turns their scraps into dried powder that can be used as fertiliser, saving them the hassle of making the dreaded trip down to the food bin, and 10,000 won (S$12) a month in food trash disposal fees.

Food waste management is a big issue in South Korea, part of a larger recycling trend the government initiated in the 1990s to encourage households to throw away less trash and ease the pressure on landfills. Food waste, which used to be treated at sewage plants and dumped in the sea, is now mostly recycled as animal feed or compost.

The country has cut its food waste from 5.1 million tonnes in 2008 to 4.82 million tonnes in 2014. As of late 2013, the government had spent 185.1 billion won on building public facilities to recycle food waste, according to data from the Environment Ministry.

Paper, cans, bottles, plastic and iron are also recycled, contributing to an overall recycling rate of more than 80 per cent. The rest is buried or incinerated.

A volume-based food waste disposal system has been in place since 2013. Some flats require residents to pay for garbage bags, while others have a centralised bin that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to weigh how much waste each household dumps and bill it accordingly.

The system has been successful in many cities. Seoul, with a population of 10 million, has managed to cut its food waste from 3,300 tonnes a day in 2012 to 3,181 tonnes a day by 2014. The goal, said the Seoul Metropolitan Government, is to reach 2,318 tonnes a day by 2018.

To make residents feel the pinch, the city government has also raised prices of food waste bags by 30 per cent since the start of the year.

A commonly used 10-litre bag, for instance, now costs between 170 won and 800 won, with wealthier districts paying more.

Mapo, a mid-sized district in Seoul that is home to 390,000 people, has installed 189 RFID bins and is adding 450 more. Each bin costs 1.7 million won and can cater to 60 households, said Mr Yu Gwang Mo, an official from the Mapo district office's maintenance team.

He said this has been the most effective way to cut food waste, with some apartments halving trash output. "People used to buy a lot of food and throw away leftovers without much care. After realising they have to pay for how much they throw, they have started to control their food purchase," he said.

The only problem with the RFID bin system, he added, is that residents have complained of a stench from the bins during summer. His team is working on the problem and using ginkgo leaves, which have a neutralising effect, could be one solution.

Housewife Cho Sung Ja, 58, who lives in Mapo in a three-bedroom apartment with her husband and son, said she started using the RFID system two years ago.

"I think it's a good idea because people started to pay more attention to how much trash they throw and there's now less food waste and the trash bin area has become cleaner too," she said.

One company that has benefited from this food recycling trend is Smart Cara, a Korean manufacturer of food waste processors for home use. Its machines can break down food into a powder that can be used as fertiliser or fuel for open-fire cooking such as barbecuing.

CEO Choi Ho Sik said sales tripled from 1.2 billion won in 2013 to 3.6 billion won last year, and the company expects to hit 10 billion won by the end of this year. It now exports to 41 countries.

"Food waste disposal is every housewife's No. 1 headache," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'South Korea cuts food waste with 'pay as you trash''. Print Edition | Subscribe