Perhaps one of the biggest frustrations for a foreigner living in Seoul, South Korea is the apparent lack of public rubbish bins in and around bustling areas. Be it a main road filled with shops, a park, a landmark, a shopping centre, it is less than common to encounter a bin for disposing of rubbish. As a result, the main streets of Seoul are often filled with rubbish, from side walks to alleyways, and it is not uncommon to see locals also disposing of rubbish in a pre-existing rubbish pile on the side of the road. Though it is not uncommon to see an aluminium can here or there in the cities of Australia, it is rare to see a build up of public littering to the extent visible in Seoul. On the rare occasion where a public rubbish bin can be found, they are often filled to the brim and overflowing onto the side walks.
Is South Korea’s waste management system as bad as it seems? This article will look into how the waste management system of South Korea (henceforth Korea) came to be as well as the impact that the system has had on Korea.
Economic Boom and Increase in Waste Generation
For a long time, solid waste was not considered to be an environmental issue in Korea. There was no concern about how much solid waste was being generated and any waste collected from households were dumped in open landfills with no regard for environmental hazards (Hong, 1999). At the same time, the government charged only a fixed amount for waste disposal services of household waste, regardless of how much waste was disposed. The Korean economic boom that occurred in last few decades brought with it a substantial increase in municipal solid waste generation. In the span of just two decades, the rate of municipal solid waste being generated per day had increased 600% from around 12,000 tons in 1970 to 84,000 tons in 1990 (Korea Environment Technology Development Institution, 1996). As the amount of waste increased rapidly, several problems regarding waste disposal surfaced in Korea.
Korea has a high population but a relatively small area, ranking fourth in population density in 1991, behind Bangladesh, Taiwan, and the Netherlands (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1991). Securing landfill facilities became increasingly difficult with residents becoming more and more susceptible to the NIMBY (‘not-in-my-backyard’) syndrome, meaning they either resisted against establishing landfill sites in or around their villages or required high compensation for doing so. The landfill sites were almost in saturation due to increasing waste and low recycling ratio. As a result, the government needed to allocate more of their budget for waste management, increasing the cost of waste disposal by 33% in 1989, though it remained a single flat rate(Ahn, 2006).
The landfills in Korea also posed a serious problem due to the environmental pollution. The landfills contributed to soil, ground, and surface water pollution, as well as emission of hazardous gases, offensive odours, and unexpected fires. Nanji Landfill Site which accommodated most of the waste generated in Seoul from 1978 to 1992 was representative of the environmental pollution caused by landfills. Although the government eventually closed down the Nanji Landfill Site in 1993, it was estimated that the cost of stabilising the site would exceed $133 million, over 25 years. Unfortunately, the state of other landfill sites in Korea were not unlike that of Nanji. Thus it became clear that this was a serious problem that could no longer be ignored.
Introduction of Volume-Based Fee System
In 1995, the Korean government implemented a Volume-Based Waste Fee (VBWF) system countrywide, in an attempt to reduce the quantity of waste and increase the rate of recycling. Up until then, a single flat rate was still being charged regardless of how much trash was being thrown out. This pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) waste management system would impose a differentiated treatment cost determined by the amount of waste generated by each household resident. Under the VBWF system, waste is collected in synthetic resin bags, that are purchased at the price of the waste treatment cost. Recyclable wastes however, are sorted and placed in separate bins without charge. This system would play a significant role in reducing the amount of waste generated while also fostering recycling. Prior to this, recycling rates were extremely low since there was no incentive for households to care about recycling.
Although the system was established as an economic incentive for waste reduction and supporting recycling, it also provided a negative incentive for illegal garbage burying and incinerating. As a result, several regulations were put in place such as imposing fines on those who use unauthorised garbage bags or dump waste illegally, as well as adding cameras to track any illegal dumping. Additionally, since imposing fines for unlawful activity has its limitations, a reward system for reporting unlawful activities was introduced in the year 2000 where anyone who reports unlawful activity is paid up to 80% of the fine charged to the violator (Kim & Kim, 2012).
One of the biggest negative incentives that the VBWF system brought about was the dumping of trash in public garbage bins. One internet user recalled that in an attempt to cut down on trash removal costs, trash disposal in public garbage bins almost doubled during the government’s system trial of the PAYT tax in select municipalities. Naturally this increased the cost of maintaining the public garbage bins and some municipals even needed to install more bins as a result. However, some municipals, rather than installing more bins to adjust for the increase in public trash disposal, decided instead to remove some existing public garbage bins. This resulted in people carrying with them plastic bags to place their trash in that they would have otherwise dumped in public bins. Encouraged by this, when Seoul adopted the VBWF system, the number of garbage bins were also trimmed over time, especially in residential areas. At the time, roughly 7600 garbage bins existed in the streets of Seoul, but that number dropped by almost half after the system’s introduction (Kim, 2014). As a result, after the VBWF system was enforced the recycling rates increased significantly while the number of public garbage bins decreased dramatically.
Results of the VBWF System
In 1994, before the implementation of the VBWF system, around 58,000 tonnes of waste was being generated per day with the recycling rate at around 15% (Ministry of Environment, 2006). By 1995, after only a single year of the VBWF system’s implementation, waste generation dropped by almost 18% to just over 47,500 tonnes per day and recycling rate also increased to around 24%. Although the waste generation per day fluctuated year by year, by 2004, 10 years after the system was first introduced, the waste generation per day was down to 50,000 tonnes per day, 14% less than 1994, and the recycling rate was at 49%, 34% higher than that in 1994. The quantity of recyclable waste generated also increased from just under 9,000 tonnes per year in 1994, to around 24,500 tonnes per year in 2004 — an increase of more than 175%.
Public awareness of the environment also improved as a result of the VBWF system. The quantity of the recyclables increased drastically and as a result, the development of industries and technologies for recycling also became increasingly visible. The competitiveness of the recycling industry improved and the development of high-tech materials such as decomposable bags were realised. There was also a trend in manufacturers and distributors to change their production and sales systems to decrease wastes such as excessive packing, and instead increase production of refillable products that reduce waste output.
In order to reduce waste, changes to consumer lifestyles were also observed. For example, using shopping baskets over vinyl bags, reducing food wastes, removing packing materials when making purchases, and reducing disposable materials. The repair of large furniture and home appliances, as well as the exchange of children’s toys were also revitalised. It was also noticed, when making purchases, consumers increasingly avoided packaging that had a negative impact on the environment, such as Styrofoam.
Tackling Food Waste
Despite the achievements of the VBWF system in reducing waste and increasing recycling, food waste was still a large issue for Korea. The separation of food waste become mandatory in 1997, and since then food waste recycling saw an increase of 47% in 2001. However, the amount of food waste that Korea was producing was still considerably large — producing three times as much food waste as Taiwan (Hou, 2013), a country with only half the population of Korea. In 2012, Koreans were found to be wasting around 170,000 tonnes of food every day, which cost the government more than $600 million a year in disposal costs (Hogan, 2015). At the time, the food waste was being treated in sewage plants before being dumped into the sea, however that practice was banned in 2013. In response to this ban, the government also implemented a system which would charge residents and businesses a tax determined by the amount of food waste they generate.
Between 2013 and 2014, the government implemented a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) food waste management system. This system required residents to go to a “Recycle Zone” that housed numerous high-tech food waste bins and scan their personal RFID card before they could dispose of their waste. The weight of the disposed waste is automatically calculated and recorded under the user’s account to be eventually billed accordingly at the end of each month. The collected food waste is also no longer sent to landfill but instead processed into animal feed, compost, or used to generate electricity. The results of this system was extremely successful, reducing household food waste by 30%, restaurant food waste by 40%, and increasing the recycling rate of food waste to almost 100% (Hogan, 2015).
From Waste to Energy
In 2012, it was announced that the Seoul government managed to recover 185 billion won (US$ 165 million) worth of energy from it’s household waste in 2011 — equivalent to the price of 1.33 million barrels of crude oil (Waste Management World, 2012). Out of the 1.1 million tonnes of combustible household waste produced in Seoul in 2011, over 66% was used as fuel in waste-to-energy facilities. The government also claimed that the output from its waste-to-energy facilities is equivalent to the annual heating needs of 190,000 households in the city or 14% of the city’s households.
Although currently only 2.5% of Korea’s energy is coming from renewable sources, it aims to generate more than 10% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The government has also set a goal to accomplish a 3% landfill rate and an 87% recycle rate by 2020. Professor Yong-Chil Seo, of the Department of Environmental Engineering at Yonsei University, says that at the rate South Korea is going, it is on a steady path to becoming a zero waste society (Waste Management Review, 2015).
Although on the surface it may seem as though Korea’s waste management system is terrible with garbage visibly lying across the main streets of Seoul, in reality Korea’s waste management system is incredibly extensive and has had profound results. The economic incentive that came with the VBWF system saw consumers become more aware of their waste generation but also helped quickly foster habits of conservation and recycling. The banning of dumping food waste into the sea and implementation of the RFID food waste management system has also seen a substantial decrease in household and business food waste generation.
So why does it still seem especially terrible to foreigners? The reason can simply be attributed to the sheer lack of public rubbish bins — especially in populated tourist areas such as Myeongdong and Insadong. Despite growing demands and formal complaints from foreign visitors, the problem still remains in Seoul to this day. Although the lack of public rubbish bins is definitely an inconvenience, Korea’s waste management system can hardly be considered trash.
Ahn, H. et al. (2006). Waste Management in Korea. Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
Hogan, B. (2015). Technology Trumps Food Waste in South Korea. Food Waste Focus. Retrieved from http://blog.leanpath.com/technology-trumps-food-waste-south-korea
Hong, S. (1999). The effects of unit pricing system upon household solid waste management: The Korean experience. Journal of Environmental Management, 57(1), 1–10.
Hou, L. (2013). South Korea’s Food Waste Solution: You Waste, You Pay. Commonwealth Magazine. Retrieved from http://english.cw.com.tw/article.do?action=show&id=14067
Kim, D. (2014). Seoul to reintroduce trash bins on streets. Koreaherald.com. Retrieved from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20140801000657
Kim, K., & Kim, Y. (2012). Volume-based Waste Fee System in Korea. Ministry of Strategy and Financy, Republic of Korea.
Korea Environment Technology Development Institution. (1996). 50 Year Record on Korean Environment. Korea Environment Technology Development Institution.
Ministry of Environment. (2006). Volume-based Waste Fee System in Korea. Korea Environment Policy Bulletin, 1(1).
U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1991). Report WP/91, World Population Profile: 1991. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Waste Management Review. (2015). South Korea Legislates Towards a Zero Waste Society. Waste Management Review. Retrieved from http://wastemanagementreview.com.au/south-korea-legislates-towards-a-zero-waste-society/
Waste Management World. (2012). Seoul Recovers Energy from 730,000 Tonnes of Waste. Waste Management World. Retrieved from https://waste-management-world.com/a/seoul-recovers-energy-from-730-000-tonnes-of-waste
This article was originally submitted in the form of an essay to Yonsei University in June 2016.