How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (2023)


Striding through a field of overgrown grass where thick blue pipes crisscross into concrete silos, Choi Sung-ho scrunched his nose in the steamy July heat, drawing in a familiar odor.

Located just off a highway that leads out of Seoul’s western border, Nanji Sewage Treatment Center, where Choi works, primarily deals with the human waste produced in Seoul’s toilets. But the smell now wafting up is that of decomposing food.

That smell is a constant source of tension between the center and nearby residents, who have called to complain so many times that the head of the facility no longer lists his personal phone number on his business card.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (1)


How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (2)

Top: A food collecting machine called “CleanNet”, right, next to a regular waste collecting machine at an apartment complex in Seoul. Bottom: Inside the waste treatment facility.

(Jean Chung / For the Times)

Choi is sympathetic to these concerns. Fielding such complaints is as much a part of this job as keeping the sludge flowing smoothly. But in a city of 10 million that produces 2,500 tons of food waste daily, the plant’s role in recycling it is as essential as it is thankless.

Since South Korea banned land-filling food waste in 2005, followed by another ban on dumping its liquid byproduct (known as leachate) into the ocean in 2013, the country has operated a comprehensive composting program that recycles almost all of its discarded food into fertilizer, animal feed or, in the case of Nanji Sewage Treatment Center, a type of fuel called biogas.

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Every day, the plant processes about 130 or so tons of leachate from waste-collection companies in the surrounding area. The liquid is poured into the concrete tanks, where, over a period of 15 to 30 days, it will be broken down by microorganisms in a process called anaerobic digestion. The biogas that this process yields is then captured and sold to a local utility, which will use it to heat the area’s homes.

“It’s just like digestion in people,” Choi explained, tapping his stomach. “We maintain the tanks at 36 or 37 degrees Celsius, similar to the temperature in human bodies.”


How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (4)

The food waste that ends up at Nanji Sewage Treatment Center starts out in a translucent yellow bag, which South Koreans have been required to use for throwing out their uneaten food since 2013.

By purchasing them, which are priced at around 70 cents per liter and sold at any convenience or grocery store, residents effectively pay a tax on the food that they are throwing away. The revenue from the bags is collected by each district and used to offset a portion of the costs of transporting and processing its food waste.

“In Seoul as a whole, bag fees pay for about 40% of the total cost of processing, which costs the city about $153 million annually,” said Jang Ji-ae, head of the municipal food waste management team.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (5)
How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (6)

South Koreans have been required to use food waste bags, seen at top in translucent yellow, for throwing out their uneaten food since 2013.

(Jean Chung / For the Times)


The routine is second nature to every Seoul resident: squeeze out any moisture and place the full bag in a personal green bin by the curb after sunset. In some apartment complexes, residents can skip the bags and put their food waste in electronic waste bins that will automatically weigh their contribution and charge them accordingly.

These methods encourage people to come to grips with the waste they create. “You are able to perceive just how much you are throwing away,” Jang said. “That makes people uncomfortable.”


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Later, at processing facilities around the city, the bags will be stripped off and any foreign objects removed from the sludge. The remaining contents will be squeezed, dehydrated and processed into fertilizer or animal feed, while the liquid runoff is sent to wastewater plants like Nanji.

Under this scheme, the country currently recycles close to 100% of its food waste, a remarkable jump from just 2.6% in 1996.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (8)

This effectiveness of the South Korean system has made it a model case study for government officials in other countries, many of whom reach out to their counterparts in Seoul for advice.


Last year, Jang’s team held a Zoom consultation session with officials in Tokyo. In Japan, food is thrown out along with general waste and later incinerated, but the Tokyo officials were exploring the possibility of a recycling-oriented alternative.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (9)
How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (10)

South Korea currently recycles close to 100% of its food waste, making it a model case study for government officials in other countries.

(Jean Chung / For The Times)

“They were most curious about how to separate food from general waste,” Jang said. “They really wanted to know whether people would actually be willing to go along with something like that.’”

In South Korea, the separation of food from general waste — the bedrock of any recycling system — began in the late 1990s.


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An intense period of urbanization had led to overcrowding in the capital, while rising standards of living were leading to levels of waste unseen in more frugal times. Residential areas pushed up against massive landfills that had reached their limits, leading to frustration toward the odors and pests.

According to Jang, these direct sensory encounters with the unpleasant consequences of food waste gave the issue an explosive political charge in the country. That paved the way for the banning of land-filling food waste in 2005, but most important, it primed people for accepting the added inconvenience of disposing of their food waste separately.

Still, the first few years followed a learning curve.

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“There was a lot of trial and error, lots of experimentation,” said Kim Mi-hwa, chairwoman of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, a national coalition of 180 environmental groups that worked with the government on the recycling scheme. “I would say it was only in 2013 or so that we could call it a success.”

One early problem was the rule-breakers. Unaccustomed to having to separate and collect food waste indoors, where careless storage would lead to an odor problem, many resorted to sneaking their food waste out to public waste bins. Local governments offered rewards to tipsters who reported offenders, who in turn would be fined.

“At subway stations back then, you’d see signs telling people not to throw their food waste away there,” Kim said. “That was a common one — people would throw out their food waste in the bathroom on the way to work.”

But punitive measures had their limits, and it was ultimately grassroots activism by Kim’s group that helped things fall into place. Across the country, local organizations canvassed neighborhoods and persuaded people to take part. “We would hold public forums or go through trash bags with residents to explain why mixing waste was a problem,” Kim said. “We did over 1,000 such outreach events each year.”

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (13)

Getting South Korea to where it is now took trial and error, and there were rule-breakers. “At subway stations back then, you’d see signs telling people not to throw their food waste away there,” said Kim Mi-hwa, of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network.

(Jean Chung / For the Times)

The recycling scheme itself also had its fair share of speed bumps. The current method of processing food waste into fertilizer, animal feed and biogas followed several failed experiments such as feeding raw food waste to ducks or composting it on large-scale earthworm farms, neither of which could handle waste at scale.


Today, mainly due to concerns about diseases such as African swine fever, animal feed is also on its way out. Under a new national law aiming to reduce the use of carbon-intensive fuel sources, Seoul will have to expand its production of biogas — which currently represents 7% of its total food waste recycling output — to 50% by 2026. To meet this goal, a new biogas production facility is being developed for Nanji.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (14)

Globally, too, recycling food waste is increasingly becoming a top priority in the response to the climate crisis.

In California, landfilled food waste accounts for 20% of the state’s methane emissions, which has led to the passage of Senate Bill 1383, a statewide organics recycling law that went into effect in 2022 and requires residents to separate their food from general waste.

And in step with a larger push in the United States to increase its own anaerobic digestion capacity, California has recently been ramping up its own food-to-biogas program.

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Though aware of the global interest in South Korea’s success story, Kim is unsure what, if any, applicable lessons the country’s model really holds. The best recycling scheme is one that is suited to the unique circumstances of the country in question, and the most fundamental puzzle — persuading an entire citizenry to voluntarily separate their waste — is far from an exact science.

How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world (16)

In South Korea, the separation of food from general waste began in the late 1990s. Urbanization led to overcrowding in Seoul, pushing residential areas up against massive landfills.

(Jean Chung / For the Times)

“I think what the South Korean model proves is that it can be done if you put in the time and effort into education and outreach,” Kim said. “South Koreans didn’t suddenly become conscientious overnight. But minds can be changed over time.”

This belief will be put to the test again in the near future, as the country picks up its efforts to reduce food waste at the source. “South Korea is a huge importer of food,” Kim said. “There is an ethical problem in transporting so much food here, only to throw it away.”

In doing so, South Koreans will be called upon to accept still more radical changes.

To further dis-incentivize waste, Seoul is considering whether to increase food waste disposal fees, a measure that will probably prove to be contentious.

Kim, on the other hand, believes that the long-standing tradition of restaurants offering free refills of banchan — side dishes that accompany Korean meals — needs to end. “Customers should have to pay for side dishes à la carte, so they only order what they will finish,” she said.

This is wading into controversial territory. Free refills on banchan are increasingly being highlighted as a significant cause of waste at restaurants, but they are also a sacrosanct part of Korean dining.

It will be Kim’s hardest sell of all.


How South Korea's composting system became a model for the world? ›

Under this scheme, the country currently recycles close to 100% of its food waste, a remarkable jump from just 2.6% in 1996. This effectiveness of the South Korean system has made it a model case study for government officials in other countries, many of whom reach out to their counterparts in Seoul for advice.

How did South Korea reduce food waste? ›

South Korea took several steps, notably the 2005 ban on landfilling food waste, to raise awareness and take concrete action. Following the ban, a 2013 legislation introduced specific bins for food waste to be discharged in, using only biodegradable bags.

When did South Korea start recycling? ›

The volume-based waste fee system (VBWF) was implemented in 1995 by the Korean government. This was made in an attempt to reduce waste generation and encourage recycling amongst its citizens. Municipal waste is collected in synthetic bags, and recyclables are separated and sorted in recycling bins.

How does South Korea encourage recycling? ›

The Korean government has introduced Volume-based waste fee system (VBWF), also known as “pay-as-you-throw” system, on January 1995 with the purpose of reducing wastes and encouraging recycling. Everyone has to buy waste bags in near markets and convenient stores.

How South Korea puts its food scraps to good use? ›

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.

What is South Korea doing for food waste? ›

In 1996, South Korea recycled just 2.6% of its food waste. Today, South Korea recycles close to 100% annually. Ease-of-use and accessibility have been crucial to the success of the South Korean model.

How did South Korea help its economy grow extremely quickly? ›

Innovation and technology are the key factors that have underpinned South Korean export competitiveness and fueled the country's remarkable economic rise over the past decades.

Why is South Korea recycling rate so high? ›

Back in 1991, recyclable waste started increasing due to the compulsory separate collection,where household waste is separated to recyclable material, food waste and the rest. The proportion of waste to be incinerated and recycled kept increasing while that to be disposed in landfills kept decreasing in Korea.

What is the success rate of recycled waste in South Korea? ›

Its recycling and composting rate is 60 percent, one of the highest in the world, according to the World Bank. By 2030, South Korea aims to reduce its plastic waste by 50 percent and recycle 70 percent of it.

How good is Korea at recycling? ›

The recycling rate of synthetic resin waste in South Korea was around 55.8 percent in 2020. The plastic recycling rate has stayed between 40 percent and 50 percent over the past decade, while the average recycling rate for municipal waste in South Korea stood at over 40 percent.

Which country is best at recycling and why? ›

The Country With The Best Recycling System
  • The best recycling countries include Germany, Austria, South Korea, and Wales. ...
  • Germany has achieved the top country on the list with strict government rules. ...
  • As a country the public is also made very aware and is passionate about the amount of waste sent to landfills.

What is South Korea doing to help the environment? ›

Green life movement in Korea is implemented through the Green Start Movement, promoting green consumption, the Green Transportation Movement, reducing food waste, and making green homes. In order to motivate people to actively participate in the movement, incentives such as the carbon points systems are provided.

Why is there so much plastic waste in Korea? ›

In modern Korean society, where everything is busy and a convenience-oriented lifestyle is pursued by many, people tend to use more single-use plastic items. In fact, plastic consumption in South Korea is significantly higher than most countries.

Which country compost the most? ›

The six countries above have the highest recycling and composting rates in the world. Germany takes the cake, recycling and composting 65% of waste. South Korea is second best, ethically getting rid of 59% of its waste. Coming in close behind are Austria and Slovenia, which tie for third place at rates of 58%.

Which country has zero food waste? ›

In recent years, France has emerged as a model of food sustainability. In 2015, they became the first country to ban edible food waste from supermarkets, forcing stores to instead donate food to charities.

What is an innovative push to cut back on food waste in South Korea? ›

As the video shows, Seoul has introduced innovative, high-tech programs that require residents to deposit their food waste in bins, where the amount of food they toss out is weighed by household using a key-card system. Dispose of too much food and you are charged a fee by municipal officials.

How is food waste recycled in Korea? ›

Just as waste management workers come to pick up regular trash and recycling, there are designated food waste trucks that pick up organic waste on a weekly basis. It is then taken to a facility that processes it, separating the liquid, which makes up approximately 80%. This liquid is then turned into biogas.

What is South Korea doing to reduce pollution? ›

Although Korea's coal‐fired power plants are relatively modern and large, with newer steam parameters, in July 2016, the country's Trade Minister announced further air pollution control measures by targeting the closure of 10 thirty-year-old coal-fired power plants by 2025.

How does Korea deal with waste? ›

Generally, in South Korea, waste and trash are handled by either being incinerated or buried. Incineration is when waste is burned and turned into energy while burying is when waste is put into the ground. There are many incineration plants located throughout South Korea that handle the majority of waste and trash.

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