A "Zero Waste" Lifestyle in Korea

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Haesung Jee | 11/07/2022

The US is estimated to produce over 30% of the planet’s total waste, even though it consists of only 4% of the world population. I experienced firsthand the effectiveness of Korea’s zero waste policies, and I strongly believe that the US has the ability to implement similar measures to decrease our impact on the environment and secure a more sustainable future.

This past summer [2020], I visited South Korea. While the trip was spurred by family reasons, I also took the opportunity to learn more about life in a different country and make connections between my travel and the Milken Institute’s goals. While travelling during the coronavirus pandemic, I was astonished by how much waste my family and I generated: single-use plastic gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer, restaurant take-out boxes, and, of course, medical masks. While all of these things were necessary to use for our safety, I worried about the negative consequences the pandemic would have on our environment and on climate change. Upon our arrival in Korea, however, my concerns were assuaged by my experiences with the country’s strict, zero-waste management systems. Though I still lamented the exorbitant use of plastic during the pandemic, I felt reassured knowing that I could still be a responsible global citizen by doing my part to ensure that the waste I produced would be recycled and put to good use. I saw Korea’s success in implementing zero-waste cities as an embodiment of the Milken Institute’s goal of improving lives through informed, meaningful policies. I hope to illuminate ways in which global researchers and policymakers can view South Korea’s zero-waste policies as a case study and learn from its success to decrease waste worldwide.

While in Korea, I was struck by the myriad of ways daily life was different from my regular one in Los Angeles. Everyday, I used Korea’s rapid and extensive public transportation system, strolled through towering apartment complexes housing hundreds of residents, and explored bustling outdoor markets. However, the most glaring difference between my life in Korea and America was also one of the most mundane of household tasks: taking out the trash. Korean residents meticulously sort their waste into three categories – general waste, food waste, and recycling. Food waste is defined as waste generated after eating or cooking, excluding hard organic material such as bones or fruit pits. It is repurposed and used as animal feed or fertilizer. Recycling must be separated by type – paper, plastic, glass, styrofoam, metal, milk cartons, etc. They purchase special bags from their local supermarkets or convenience stores to hold general and food waste. Special large item sticker certificates must be purchased to dispose of large items such as bicycles or TVs, For apartment residents, there is a specified day and location to deposit waste. While I stayed at my grandparents’ apartment, I often saw entire families lugging their trash outside on waste deposit days, stomping on soda cans and flattening cardboard boxes alongside their neighbors. Sorting waste in this manner was wholly unfamiliar to me; I was baffled by all the different types of recycling and would wrack my brain to determine whether a tea bag counted as food or general waste (it was the latter). Even my mom, who grew up in Korea, was unfamiliar with the system and could not answer my questions.

Upon my return to the States, I realized that this was because Korea’s current volume-based waste disposal fees (VBWF) system had been implemented nationwide in 1995, about two years before my parents immigrated to America. It was no wonder that my mom felt just as overwhelmed as I did. The VBWF system is a two-pronged approach: dissuading people from producing waste because they have to pay for stickers, tags, or bags proportionate to the amount of waste they produce and encouraging them to recycle by collecting recyclable waste for free. People who violate garbage disposal rules are subject to fines of up to $1,000, making proper waste disposal a priority for Korean residents.

The VBWF system was implemented in response to the overwhelming amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) – a technical term for everyday waste or garbage – generated by Korean cities following South Korea’s rapid modernization in the 1980s. The total MSW generated in a single day exploded from around 12,000 tons in 1970 to 84,000 tons in 1990. Landfill sites were overwhelmed, leading to dangerous environmental consequences, including ground and surface water pollution, landslides, hazardous gases, and fires. The South Korean government sought to reduce MSW, increase recycling, and repurpose food waste to support a more environmentally sustainable nation. In 1994, about 58,000 tonnes of waste was generated per day, with a recycling rate of 15%. However, after only a year of implementing the VBWF system, waste generation in 1995 was 47,500 tonnes a day (a 15% drop) and the recycling rate also increased to around 24%. By 2004, daily MSW generation was down to 50,000 tonnes per day and the recycling rate was at 49%, a significant increase from 1994. Furthermore, the VBWF system significantly cut down Korea’s food waste: household food waste was reduced by 30% and restaurant food waste by 40%, and the rate of food waste recycling increased to almost 100%. In 2018, Korea’s recycling rate was 53.7%, much higher than the United States’ rate of about 34%.

South Korea’s policies to reduce MSW and food waste generation have resulted in better health for its people and environment and have put the country on a solid path to become a zero waste society by 2025. In Seoul, South Korea’s capital, the government recouped $165 million USD worth of energy from household waste in 2011 and 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 reported that the output from its waste-to-energy facilities is equivalent to the annual heating needs of 190,000 households, about 14% of Seoul’s households.

At home in Los Angeles, I threw things away with reckless abandon, giving little consideration to the waste I generated. In contrast, I was much more careful about what I consumed in Korea, partly because I had to pay for more bags and partly because of sheer laziness – the more waste I generated, the longer it would take for me to sort my trash later in the week. I know that the Milken Institute also has an important role to play in embracing this vision of a zero waste nation and planet – I am heartened because I know the numerous fellow Scholars doing work in relevant fields of science and environmental policy will help guide the world onto a more sustainable path.