Taking a (Recycled) Page Out of South Korea’s Book: A Comparison of Global Sustainability Practices

Spend some time in South Korea, and you might have second thoughts about throwing your leftovers into the trash. Here’s why the country is lauded as a global recycling leader, and how we can learn from their practices. Solim Kim was a participant in Midstory's 2021 High School ThinkLab program and draws from her personal experiences living in both South Korea and Toledo, Ohio. Cover graphic by Zoe Neely for Midstory.

You’re at your family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner party. You carefully fill your plate with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce one by one and start digging in. By the time chairs start shifting and feet start shuffling at the smell of dessert, your stomach starts to feel like it can’t take in anymore. You look down at your plate, but you realize that there’s still food left over. How will you get rid of them? If you are a Toledoan, or someone living in basically any part of the United States, chances are you will discard your leftovers along with your plate straight into the trash can without giving it a second thought. 

An average RFID food waste disposal system in a Korean neighborhood. By Solim Kim for Midstory.

But if you were instead in South Korea, perhaps celebrating Chuseok and eating galbijjim instead of turkey, your leftovers would meet a different demise; instead of being dumped in the trash alongside all kinds of waste, they’d be placed in a separate container dedicated solely for food waste. After you’d gathered a substantial amount of scraps and leftovers in the container, you would then bring the container outside and discard it in your neighborhood’s food waste trash can that detects the weight of what you’re discarding. But the story doesn’t end there. The final step of your food waste journey in South Korea is paying for the total weight of the food that you’ve discarded, which is usually charged through your apartment fees.

But the differences in sustainability practices between the two countries don’t stop at just food disposal — they span across several systems, including recycling.

South Korea is ranked third in the world for best recycling according to one study, and another list of global recycling leaders ranks it second, with 59 percent of its total municipal waste being recycled or composted. The U.S. lags behind at 35 percent, and while it represents only 4 percent of the world’s population, it contributes 12 percent of total global municipal waste.

Image courtesy of Statista.

One key factor in South Korea’s sustainability success is none other than…trash bags. Nationwide, Korea employs the use of regulation garbage bags, also known as volume-based garbage bags, which function in a similar way to the country’s food waste disposal system: people are held responsible for the amount of waste they create. Every household is required to purchase particular types of garbage bags according to their city or province and the type of trash they are throwing away (flammable or nonflammable). People essentially pay for their own garbage disposal every time they take out their trash, reducing waste generation in the long run. 

A Korean regulation trash bag, also known as a volume-based trash bag. By Solim Kim for Midstory.

Almost immediately after these new garbage bags were implemented in the early 1990s, the nation saw a drastic increase in recycling.

“Since recycling was the one form of waste management that does not cost additional money for residents, people started utilizing recycling more and more because they could save some of their money taking out the recyclable materials from their volume-based trash bags,” Sora Yi, a senior research fellow at the Korea Environmental Institute (KEI), said.

This change was the catalyst for recycling in South Korean culture. Soon after the rise in recycling rates, Korean cities and neighborhoods began to further bolster the recycling system by installing recycling stations corner by corner, block by block, next to trash bins. In a matter of a few years, recycling in South Korea became cost-effective, easy and efficient.

Left: Public recycling and waste bins in the form of coffee cups in the streets of Gangnam, South Korea. By Solim Kim for Midstory. Right: Another average recycling and waste bin on a sidewalk in South Korea. By Solim Kim for Midstory.

So what can we learn, and are these lessons applicable in the U.S.? One issue is that recycling practices vary drastically across the U.S. — and policy does, too. Let’s take, for example, the mid-size Midwestern city of Toledo, Ohio. Currently, the city sees about 30,000 tons of material going to its recycling facility per year, Adam Cassi, Executive Director of Keep Toledo/Lucas County Beautiful, said. 

But the pandemic impacted Toledo’s waste disposal — for both the better and the worse. In 2020, Toledo’s trash volume increased by nearly 20%, bringing in 40,000 more tons to the landfill than the previous year. And conversations surrounding sustainability and green practices tended to be overshadowed by the more immediate public health threat. But, according to Cassi, recycling rates went up during the pandemic. As Ohio’s stay-at-home order went into effect in mid-March, people began spending most of their time indoors, and families had “the opportunity to recycle a lot more.”

“There’s not a good opportunity to recycle a lot of other things when you’re often in a business setting,” Cassi said. 
This increase in recycling rates, however, also meant an increase in the contamination rates of the items being recycled, something Toledo already struggled with, costing the city time and dollars — $1.5 million from one year, to be exact.

Public recycling bin for plastic and vinyl waste. By Solim Kim for Midstory.

According to Cassi, a lack of education about recycling in general has caused contamination to exceed desirable rates, making up 44 percent of the total recycled goods in 2016; in other words, almost half of the materials being recycled weren’t even recyclable. The city has since seen a decrease in contamination, and Cassi says Toledo is comparable to similar cities across the U.S., which tend to see about 30 percent contamination. (The national contamination goal by weight is 10 percent or less.)

But Cassi noted some lessons we can learn to tackle common challenges.

The first barrier is convenience. While in Korea you may find cute, coffee-shaped recycling bins just asking you to toss that paper beverage cup in, Toledoans have less convenience in disposing of recyclable waste. Cassi thinks that implementing more recycling stations in high-traffic areas is one area where the U.S. can learn from South Korea. The idea is that the more feet cross paths in a place, the more waste will be produced, and having recycling stations nearby will hopefully lessen the chance of recyclable materials being thrown into a common trash can.

“If you’re walking around downtown Toledo, there’s no place to recycle a water bottle,” Cassi said. I think if we got the large entities in town, the libraries and the zoo, places that people are visiting, and we had recycling at all those places, then people are going to learn to recycle better.”

Another valuable lesson from South Korea comes in its emphasis on education and participation. Incentivizing recycling and making it a common neighborhood- and district-wide practice means that residents want and even need to know how the system works — and to participate. While that may not be a feasible system in the U.S. with its federal, state and local level policy distinctions, a local government like Toledo can play a considerable role in pushing its people to live more sustainably through educational campaigns through schools, workplaces, community events and even public facilities, such as the library; informing citizens about the proper steps of recycling, the rules of sorting recyclable materials, and the basic value of recycling is often just as important than the actual act of recycling.

Perhaps most important of all, however, is the mental factor: although U.S. residents do indeed pay a fee for their garbage disposal, it’s usually automated through monthly or annual fees, or subsidized through taxes. It’s something that is taken as a given — and rarely crosses our minds as we empty our plate into the garbage can or take out the trash. In South Korea, each food scrap uneaten and dumped into trash bags can mean additional dollars paid. 

By Zoe Neely for Midstory.


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