South Korea is Putting Food Scraps to Good Use

Repurposing organics into animal feed, fertilizer and heat.

Jun 23, 2023


South Korea is Putting Food Scraps to Good Use | Repurposing organics into animal feed, fertilizer and heat.

Where do food scraps go? In most countries around the world, it goes into landfills. But not in South Korea. The country banned food waste in landfills nearly 20 years ago and today, it is turned into animal feed, fertilizer, and fuel, reported the Japan Times.

Around the globe, 1.4 billion tons of food is thrown away every year. The waste goes into landfills where it can pollute the land and water as well as releasing methane – a greenhouse gas – into the air. In fact, food waste is the third-largest source of methane in the US, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The system that is in place in South Korea  keeps almost 100 percent of unused food out of landfills and incinerators, according to Japan Times. While other cities and local governments have put similar plans in place, it is not done anywhere else on a country-wide basis.

How did recycling become a way of life?
There are two reasons why South Korea legislated mandatory recycling of food waste. First, the country’s culinary tradition of numerous small dishes resulted in large amounts of uneaten food. This food waste went into landfills. But the country’s mountainous terrain didn’t allow for enough landfills to be built.

That’s why the government legislated mandatory recycling of paper and plastic in 1995 but food waste continued to be buried in landfills. But it was the neighbors of these landfills that demanded that another solution be found due to the stench from rotting food and methane gas.

The government banned organic waste from landfills in 2005, reported The Guardian. Another law that was enacted in 2013 banned dumping liquid food waste in the ocean. Universal curbside composting was also put into effect that same year.

How it works
The system is not free but most of the cost is absorbed by the country. People can buy yellow recycling bags that are picked up curbside and some municipalities have installed autonomous food waste collectors that require residents to swipe a card to pay a weight-based fee.

“The bins have gotten cleaner and less smelly,” Eom Jung-suk, 60, who lives in an apartment complex that uses the autonomous system, told Japan News. She has never been charged more than one US dollar for the service and some months it has been much less.

Eom is doing her part to reduce food waste. Just today, at breakfast, I told my daughters to take just enough to eat,” she said.

The food waste is collected from the bins every day except Sunday, reported Japan News. Some of it is used to make an animal feed supplement or fertilizer and some is used to make biogas.

 One biogas plant located in Goyang, a suburb of Seoul processes 70,000 tons of waste every year. The food scraps undergo anaerobic digestion in tanks for 35 days where the waste is broken down and made into biogas. The biogas is sold to a utility company and used to heat 3,000 homes in Goyang. The solid waste that is left is turned into fertilizer and given away to farmers.

Every ton of food waste in a landfill creates 800 lbs. of CO2 but turning it into biogas halves the amount. While this solution may not work everywhere, reducing methane is a world-wide concern and tackling food waste can contribute greatly. Even if your municipality does not collect food waste, you can compost your own to do your part to reduce greenhouse gasses.

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Bonnie has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.