Culture shock over South Korea's mandatory recycling of food waste

Households have to buy bags like this yellow one (2,100 won for a pack of 10 three-litre bags) to put food waste. When full, it needs to be taken outside the apartment building and left at the main gate for the garbage truck to collect. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
Before photo of the Smart Cara food waste processor with a full bucket of orange peel, leftover rice, rotten vegetables and soup scraps. It grinds the contents and turns them into a dried mixture that can be used as fertiliser. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
After photo of the Smart Cara food waste processor after grinding a full bucket of orange peel, leftover rice, rotten vegetables and soup scraps into a dried mixture that can be used as fertiliser. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON

I have started to cook more often since moving to Seoul a year ago.

Aghast at having to pay an average of 8,000 won (S$9.40) for lunch, even for a simple bowl of noodles, I decided it made more sense to make my own meals.

But that presented another problem: food waste.

SPH Brightcove Video
Technology plays a part in South Korea's volume-based food waste disposal system, which was implemented in 2013. A housewife shows how to use this centralised food bin that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to weigh how much waste each household dumps and bill them accordingly.

Unlike in Singapore, where we put all general waste in the same bin, South Korea requires food trash to be separated so it can be recycled as animal feed or compost.

There are different systems in place to charge residents for how much food they dump.

For me, it means buying yellow plastic bags (2,100 won for a pack of 10 3-litre bags), which I leave at the sink to collect food scraps to throw out at the end of the day.

What may sound simple actually requires more self discipline than expected.

"Don't throw bones into the bag! Dogs can die from it, you know?" my Korean husband gasped once.

Oops - I blame the bag, which does not clearly tell users what can go in. It only indicates that "water, bonds, shells, etc." should be removed.

Not all food waste is equal, as it turns out. And "bonds" actually mean bones, I realised after reading the instructions that were in Korean.

My husband went on to give me a lecture on what is not allowed in the yellow bag: bones, fish organs, seafood shells, nut shells, egg shells, hard seeds (for example, mango seeds) and tea leaves.

There are also fixed hours (6pm to midnight) for taking out the food trash to be collected by a garbage truck.

Anyone found violating the rules can be fined up to 1 million won, he warned.

That's not all. I had to learn how to separate recyclable trash from the non-recyclables too.

Most papers, plastics, glass bottles, styrofoam and cans can be recycled. But there are exceptions, like plastic-coated paper cups, glass bottles for cosmetics, instant noodle packaging and soiled plastic bags, which go into the general waste bag.

For someone who grew up with the convenience of throwing everything down the rubbish chute, it was such a headache trying to remember what goes where, and I've lost count of how many times we missed the garbage truck's hours and had to keep the food waste in the house.

But as initial culture shock gave way to acceptance, recycling became a habit for me and I even felt guilt pangs while using the rubbish chute when I was back in Singapore over the Chinese New Year.

It also got me thinking: Should Singapore separate and recycle food waste too?

A pilot project was recently launched at two hawker centres to process food trash on location, with machines installed to turn the food into water or fertiliser. Each hawker centre produces two tonnes to three tonnes of food waste a day, a figure that the National Environment Agency (NEA) hopes to cut by as much as 80 per cent.

The NEA is also starting to encourage people to waste less food at home. In 2014, we only recycled 13 per cent of the 788,600 tonnes of food thrown down the bin.

It's in stark contrast to the situation in South Korea, where over 90 per cent of food waste is recycled, and residents seem to be very mindful not to waste food (I got chided once for cutting spring onions not close enough to the roots).

A check with fellow Singaporeans living here revealed that food waste separation is a culture shock to most of them. One woman even said she would dine out with her husband so she does not have to think about where to throw the leftovers.

South Korea's system is good, but it may not work in Singapore, they said, citing potential problems like how food can rot quickly - given our hot and humid weather - and stink up the neighbourhood, how centralised food waste bins could attract rats and monkeys, and the need to hire extra manpower to cope with waste collection.

Some told stories of how their Korean neighbours tried to beat the system by flushing food down the toilet bowl (eventually choking up the toilet bowl) or mixing it with the general waste.

There's also the question of where the recycled by-products can go. There are no pigs to feed in Singapore, and land for agriculture, which requires fertilisers, is limited.

But our landfills are even more limited and will run out of space in about 20 years if we continue to dump instead of reduce, reuse and recycle.

One way is to start making compost at home. Those who grow their own vegetables - whether along HDB corridors or in community gardens - will find this useful for sure.

Another solution is to get a food waste processor for home use.

I got the chance to try a brand called Smart Cara, and the result was quite amazing.

The machine is only as big as a microwave oven, and there is just one button to press, making it very easy to use.

I put in a full bucket of orange peel, leftover rice, rotten vegetables and soup scraps, and four hours later, out came a brown, dried mixture that can be used as fertiliser.

I thought of my mother, a HDB farmer, who would love to have free nutrients for her crops.

Maybe I should start growing my own greens too, in Seoul. A tiny bunch of kang kong can cost 15,000 won here - enough to pay for two decent Korean lunches.

With this machine in the house, there would be no need to take out the food trash any more. No more headaches!

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