South Korea's Food Waste Solution : You Waste, You Pay
Apr 25, 2013

South Korea produces three times as much food waste as Taiwan. The South Korean government is now taking aggressive measures to tackle the food waste mountain, imposing weight-based disposal fees.

Busying herself in the kitchen, Ms. Kwan, a Seoul housewife, makes great efforts to strain all the liquid from the family's food waste to reduce its weight. Trying to avoid leftovers, Kwan divides fresh produce and other foods into small portions right after buying them. For each meal she aims to prepare the proper amount so that nothing will have to go into the garbage bin. When prepping ingredients such as vegetables she tries to use all edible parts to minimize waste.

Kwan is not an environmental activist. She goes to such lengths to reduce food waste because the apartment block where she and her family live installed a food waste recycling device in March that automatically weighs the discarded waste. Disposal fees are then billed based on the weight of the food waste her family generates.

"Because I'm worried about the disposal fees, I'm more careful about food waste now. Our food waste has become much less than before," Kwan says.

Before the introduction of pay-by-weight food waste management, the fixed waste disposal fees were equally divided among all tenants and paid with the monthly apartment block management fees. The new pay-by-weight system will be rolled out nationwide next year. The idea is to make consumers feel the pinch in their pockets – the more you toss out, the more you pay – and thus create an incentive to generate less waste.

The new measure already in place in the capital of Seoul will eventually affect 22 million households nationwide as well as restaurants, snack bars, streetside food stalls and fresh-food super markets. Already people are wracking their brains for ways to escape high disposal fees.

The food waste topic is all over TV. A special report on the pay-by-weight food waste management points out that food waste fees have now turned into variable operating costs. The manager of a small restaurant featured in the program said he had been inquiring with suppliers about the functions, price, usage and power consumption of newfangled food waste dryers and shredders. But he has not yet made up his mind whether to invest in such equipment because renting or buying a food waste dryer is costly.

Instead he has designed ways to reduce food waste as much as possible by producing less waste during food preparation in the kitchen and by donating leftovers to charitable organizations.

As the South Korean economy has gathered steam in recent years, food waste output has also soared. Between 2008 and 2012 the country's food waste output increased by 3 percent annually. Last year, South Korea generated an average 17,100 tons of food waste per day. This is about three times as much as Taiwan, although South Korea has only twice the population.

In South Korea, food waste accounts for 28 percent of total waste in terms of volume. Thirty percent of home food waste comes from leftovers, and 5 percent is food that is thrown away uneaten. In smaller restaurants leftovers account for 68 percent of all food waste.

Food waste is costly in terms of not only the food itself, but also disposal. Envico (Korea Environment and Resources Corporation), a specialized resource recycling organization under the South Korean Ministry of Environment, has designed the website "Food Waste Zero," which monitors waste online. Its statistics show that the disposal of food waste costs South Korea about 800 billion won (about NT$22 billion) per year. Not yet included in these costs is food loss during production, delivery, preservation and preparation as well as pollution from CO2 emissions during these processes.

Public Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), the country's largest radio and TV network, has reported that just 10 percent of the country's desiccated and shredded food waste can be used to generate renewable energy, while the remaining 90 percent is dumped. Last year, South Korea dumped 13,000 tons of food waste leachate into the sea per day. The Northeast Asian country remains the only member of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) that still disposes food waste leachate into the ocean.

The food waste issue is considered South Korea's biggest hurdle to becoming an environment-friendly nation.

In a bid to rein in food waste, South Korea implemented a pay-as-you-throw program in selected areas on a trial basis in 2005. By last year, 95 percent of the country's 153 self-governing municipalities (cities and districts) had implemented the system. Next year, the program will be implemented nationwide.

The Ministry of Environment not only preaches food waste reduction, but is also setting a good example with a system of fines for uneaten food in the ministry's staff cafeteria.

Before returning their plates after meals, employees are required to put them on an electronic scale to weigh them for leftovers. Should an employee leave more than 20 grams of food on the plate, he or she will have to pay 500 won (about NT$12) into a public fund. Although the fine is small, it has a demonstrable deterrent effect. Other major government institutions are now also promoting the idea of fining diners for helping themselves to more than they can eat.

High-tech Billing Systems

How can residents be charged for the food they toss out? The Ministry of Environment currently accepts three different billing methods, while it is up to each municipality to decide which one it chooses. Most municipalities offer several billing options. Food waste recycling devices such as composters, pre-paid trash bags and bar coded trash cans are also designed and supplied by the local governments, since the central government has not issued nationwide regulations.

The three major billing methods are as follows:

1. Radio frequency identification (RFID) food waste management system: When users tap a card with their personal RFID tag over a reader on a specially designed food waste recycling bin, the bin's lid will automatically open. Waste discarded into the bin is then automatically weighed and recorded under the user's account. The user is billed monthly based on the total weight of dumped food waste for the said month.

The RFID-enabled food waste bins were developed by LG Uplus, a telecommunications and mobile phone operator controlled by the LG Group, and regional telecom suppliers, based on specifications and designs drawn up by local governments.

2. Pre-paid garbage bags: Residents pre-pay for waste collection when buying specially designed garbage bags which are priced based on volume. In Seoul a 10-liter food waste garbage bag costs around 190 won (about NT$5), about the same as an ordinary garbage bag.

3. Bar code management system: Consumers deposit food waste into composting bins of standardized sizes and pay disposal fees by purchasing either bar code stickers attached to the bin, or bar code cards inserted into a reader on the bin.

Although the new weight-based food waste fee system has not yet been implemented nationwide, it has shown observable results in the trial areas.

Over 20% Food Waste Reduction

The Ministry of Environment has announced that Seoul's food waste output has declined from 53,000 kg per day before the pay-by-weight scheme was introduced to 41,000 kg per day now, which is a 22.6 percent reduction. The disposal of 1 ton of food waste costs 1.5 million won (NT$40,000). If Seoul residents create just 10 tons less of food waste per day, the city government can save NT$400,000 in disposal costs per day.

Presently, South Korean households pay an average 12,000 won to 18,000 won (about NT$300-NT$500) for food waste disposal per year.

Aside from Seoul, the effects of the pay-as-you-throw food waste policy can also be felt in other regions. In the ancient capital of Gyeongju, for instance, households produced 13 percent less food waste on average in the one year since the weight-based fee system was implemented. Food waste generated by small restaurants even decreased 40 percent.

The Ministry of Environment has set a nationwide 40-percent food waste reduction target. And it has pledged to completely stop dumping food waste leachate into the ocean starting this year.

South Korea's genuine efforts to reduce its mountain of food waste and stop environmentally harmful practices, as well as the good example set by its civil servants, could serve as a lesson for Taiwan.