The Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the World Economic Forum target us to reduce food system waste by 20 million tons by 2030.
Food systems have a high environmental cost — more than 820 million people go hungry every day and many producers struggle to stay afloat. In high-income countries, 35% of the food is thrown out by consumers. Let’s look at South Korea for inspiration on a food waste recycling solution.
South Korea has a big food waste problem, with 130 kg of food waste produced by an average adult every year.
This is large even compared to the 95 – 115 kg of food waste produced by an average European or North American. Why was waste in South Korea so high to begin with? There are multiple factors. In the late 90s, the standard of living in the country rose, leading to more frequent dining out and more single-occupant households. Additionally, in South Korea meals are traditionally served with banchan: side dishes such as kimchi, seasoned soybean sprouts, or radish salad, and more – sometimes up to 20. These side dishes are delicious, but eating them all is a challenge, which leads to a lot left over at the end of the meal.
Dumping food waste in landfills in South Korea was banned in 2005, and starting in 2013 a food waste recycling program was introduced.
Because so much food was going to waste, the South Korean government stepped in to save food from going to landfills, which in turn changed the behavior of South Korean citizens. South Koreans now purchase special biodegradable food waste bags at local supermarkets and convenience stores at a cost of around $6/month.
All food waste scraps are placed into the bags, which are then placed into specially designated collection buckets.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-equipped “smart bins” have been placed around the city of Seoul, into which residents can place their food scraps directly without having to use the special bags. The smart bins charge by weight, encouraging residents to drain their food scraps of liquids before discarding — thus saving the city money on collection fees. Either way, the message is clear — the more you waste, the more you pay.
The rate of food waste recycled has increased from 2% to 95% today in South Korea.
The collected dry food scraps are then turned into fertilizer in urban gardens, or the remaining moisture squeezed out of the bags is turned into bio gasses and oils. And although the system isn’t perfect (South Korea has created more fertilizer than can realistically be used), these changes have caused the rate of food waste recycled to increase from 2% to 95% today and proves how much of a difference small changes can make.
Does your city or town compost? Have you ever tried composting? Let us know about your experiences, or check out our An Easy Guide to Backyard Composting blog to learn more about starting a home composting system, or our OPL Insight, Composting in a City Near You to learn about composting services that do the dirty work for you.