Most of the 1.4 billion tonnes of food waste produced globally ends up in landfills. By rotting, wastewater pollutes water and soil and releases large amounts of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
But that’s not the case in South Korea, which banned food waste from landfill nearly 20 years ago. Here, most of the waste is turned into animal feed, fertilizer and fuel to heat homes.
One of the food wastes Largest contributors to climate changeNot only because of the methane, but also because of the wasted energy and resources that went into its production and transportation.
Governments around the world have scrutinized South Korea’s system, which diverts 90 percent of its food waste to landfills and incinerators. Officials from China, Denmark and other countries visited South Korean facilities. A spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Health said that by next fall all residents would be required to separate their food waste from other garbage, saying they had been looking at the Korean system for years.
Although many cities have similar programs, few countries, like South Korea, operate at a national level. This is due to cost, said principal scientist Paul West Project Draft, a research group studying ways to reduce carbon emissions. Although both individuals and businesses pay a small fee to dispose of food waste, the program costs South Korea $600 million a year, according to the country’s environment ministry.
Still, West and other experts say it should be followed. „The example of South Korea shows that large-scale emissions reductions are possible,” he said.
As a result of South Korea’s culinary tradition, many dishes go uneaten. Most dishes come with small garnishes (sometimes a few and other times more than a dozen). Over the years, all those leftovers ended up in the dirt.
However, the country’s mountainous terrain limits the number of landfills that can be built and the distance they can be from residential areas. In 1995, the government introduced mandatory recycling of plastic and paper, but food waste was buried with other waste.
Political support for changing it has been fueled by complaints from residents living near the dumpsters about the stench, said Ki-Young Yoo, a researcher at the Seoul Institute, a government agency that has advised some cities on food waste management. Because shells are a staple of Korean cuisine, leftovers here retain a high water content, which means stronger flavors and more volume.
„When all that stuff went to the landfill, it released a terrible stench,” Yu said.
It has been illegal to send food waste to landfills since 2005. Local governments have built hundreds of centers to implement them. Consumers, restaurant owners, truck drivers and others are part of the Internet that collects them and turns them into something useful.
At Jongno Stu Village, a popular lunch spot in northern Seoul’s Dobong-gu district, stewed pollock made with cabbage or cabbage and kimchi ggke are the best-selling dishes. But regardless of the order, owner Lee Hae-yeon offers small side dishes like kimchi, tofu, steamed bean sprouts and marinated perilla leaves.
Customers can help themselves to more, and „always people take more than they eat,” Lee said. „When it comes to food, Koreans like a lot.”
For every 20 liters of food he throws away, Lee pays about 2,800 won, just over two dollars. Throughout the day, the rest is thrown into a bucket in the kitchen, and at closing time, Lee empties it into a special bin outside. On the lid is a sticker you purchase from the county, proof that you have paid to dispose of this food.
The companies contracted in the district empty the boats early in the morning. Park Myung-joo and his crew start driving the streets at five in the morning, removing stickers from cans and emptying the contents into the tank of the truck.
They work every day except Sunday. „Waiting even one day will accumulate a large amount of debris,” Park said.
At eleven o’clock in the morning they arrive at the Topong-ku processing center, where they unload all the mess.
The remains—bones, seeds, shells—are separated by hand. (The Dobong-gu plant is the last in the country where this process is not automated.) A conveyor belt takes this waste to a plant that cuts it into smaller pieces. Drain anything that cannot be crushed easily, such as plastic bags, then burn.
Then, it is placed in the oven and dehydrated. The moisture passes into pipes leading to a water treatment plant, where a portion is used to produce biogas. The rest is treated and discharged into a nearby stream.
The waste left at the processing plant is shredded into the final product four hours after Park’s crew dumps it: a dry brown powder that smells like earth. It is a feed supplement for chickens and ducks, rich in fiber and protein, and is offered to any farm that wants it, said Sim Yoon-sik, the center’s manager.
Inside the plant, strong odors cling to clothes and hair, but outside, they are barely noticeable. Ducts running throughout the building purify the air through a chemical process before it is discharged through the system.
Other plants work differently. At the biogas center in Goyang, a suburb of Seoul, food waste — 70,000 tons a year — undergoes anaerobic digestion. While they remain in large tanks for up to 35 days, the bacteria break down organic matter and produce biogas, mostly methane and carbon dioxide.
The biogas is sold to a local utility that says it is used to heat 3,000 homes in Koyang. The remaining solids are mixed with wood chips to make compost.
Los Researchers have revealed Every ton of food waste that rots in a landfill releases greenhouse gases equivalent to 363 kg of carbon dioxide. When converted to biogas, this is cut in half, explained Lee Sang-kee, an engineer at the Goyang plant.
For all its benefits, critics point out that the South Korean plan falls short of one of its goals: to get people to throw away less food. According to data from the Ministry of Environment, the amount of food wasted across the country has remained more or less constant over the years.
The system has other drawbacks. There have been complaints from here and there; For example, in Deogyang-gu, a district of Goyang, villagers reported that the stench from the processing center was once so bad that they could not keep their windows open. The plant has been closed since 2018 due to opposition from neighbours.
„When the plant closed, all the problems disappeared,” said Mo Sang Yun, a 68-year-old resident of Deokyang.
However, most plants across the country—unlike the landscapes they’re essentially replacing—don’t elicit many serious complaints from neighbors. Government officials said continuous advancement in technology has made operations cleaner and more efficient.
This has made the waste disposal process easier for many people. In housing developments across the country, residents are given cards to scan each time they dump food waste into a designated bin. The container weighs what they dump; At the end of the month they receive an invoice.
„The bins are cleaner and smell less,” said Eum Jung-suk, 60, who lives in such a compound.
Eom never charged more than a dollar for the service. In April he paid 26 cents. However, the monthly bill makes her more aware of how much she’s throwing away.
„Today at breakfast I told my daughters to eat enough,” he said.
John Yoon reports from the New York Times newsroom in Seoul. He previously served on the newspaper’s coronavirus watch team, which won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He joined The Times in 2020. @Janjeon
Song W. Lee is a photographer for The New York Times. He was a member of a team that won two Pulitzer Prizes in 2002: one for Breaking News Photography and the other for Best Photography. Follow him on Instagram @nicksongster