Don’t Talk Trash About South Korea’s Waste Management System

A brief look into the history and development of South Korea’s waste management

Piles of trash littering the streets of South Korea. Image credit: lilyellyn.com

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Conclusion

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.

References

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.

An Australian software developer who studied in South Korea for a year and has a passion for languages — both programming and spoken.

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