Every few months or so, 69-year-old Seoul resident Hwang Ae-soon stops by a local convenience store to buy a 10-piece bundle of special yellow plastic bags.

Since 2013, under South Korea’s mandatory composting scheme, residents have been required to use these bags to throw out their uneaten food. Printed with the words “designated food waste bag”, a single 3-liter bag costs 300 won (about 20 cents) apiece. In Hwang’s district of Geumcheon-gu, curbside pickup is every day except Saturday. All she has to do is squeeze out any moisture and place the bag by the street in a special bin after sunset.

“We’re just two people – my husband and myself,” said Hwang. “We throw out one bag or so every week.” Hwang, an urban farmer who also composts some of her food waste herself (things like fruit peels or vegetable scraps) guesses that this is probably on the lower end of the spectrum. “We’re part of a generation from a far more frugal time,” she explained. “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the country was so poor that very little food actually went to waste. We ate everything we had.”

Things changed as urbanization intensified in the following decades, bringing with it industrialized food systems and new scales of waste. Beginning in the late 1990s, as landfills in the crowded capital area approached their limits, South Korea implemented a slate of policies to ease what was becoming seen as a trash crisis. The government banned burying organic waste in landfills in 2005, followed by another ban against dumping leachate – the putrid liquid squeezed from solid food waste – into the ocean in 2013. Universal curbside composting was implemented that same year, requiring everyone to separate their food from general waste.

Hwang’s yellow bag will be hauled off to a processing plant along with thousands of others, where the plastic will be stripped off and its contents recycled into biogas, animal feed or fertilizer. Some municipalities have introduced automated food waste collectors in apartment complexes, which allow residents to forgo the bags and swipe a card to pay the weight-based fee at the machine directly. As far as the numbers go, the results of this system have been remarkable. In 1996, South Korea recycled just 2.6% of its food waste. Today, South Korea recycles close to 100% annually.

Workers sort rubbish at a waste recycling center the in the Songpa-gu district of Seoul, South Korea.
Workers sort rubbish at a waste recycling center the in the Songpa-gu district of Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Ease-of-use and accessibility have been crucial to the success of the South Korean model. “South Korea’s waste system, especially in terms of frequency of collection, is incredibly convenient compared to other countries,” says Hong Su-yeol, a waste expert and director of Resource Recycling Consulting. “Some of my peers working at non-profits overseas say that disposal should be a little bit inconvenient if you want to discourage waste but I disagree: I think that it should be made as easy as possible as long as it goes hand-in-hand with other policies that attack the problem of reducing waste itself.”

In addition to daily curbside pickup, Hong notes the importance of balancing cost-sharing and affordability. Food waste is heavy from its high moisture content, which makes transportation expensive. In South Korea, the revenue from the yellow bags is collected by the district government to help defray the costs of this process, in effect working as a pay-as-you-throw tax. (In Hwang’s district of Geumcheon-gu, yellow bag fees pay for about 35% of the total annual costs). “As long as the public’s sense of civic duty can accommodate it, I think it’s good to charge a fee for food waste,” he says. “But if you make it so costly that people feel the blow, they’re going to throw it away illegally.”

In the United States, where most food waste still ends up in landfills – the third largest source of methane in the country – state and municipal governments are also reckoning with the growing need to recycle more of their discarded food. Earlier this year, California enacted Senate bill 1383, which makes separated food waste collection in all jurisdictions mandatory with the aim of a 75% reduction in landfilled organic waste by 2025. New York City, which has long struggled to find a workable food recycling system of its own, recently introduced its first borough-wide universal curbside composting program in Queens.

Each of these experiments is pointing in the right direction, but experts say that there is still a long way to go. Only nine US states currently have some sort of ban on landfilling organic waste, while others are facing the high costs and logistical complexities of building new recycling infrastructure. “The way this goes, it’s policy first, then money for infrastructure, then making sure that it gets collected at the home,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of food waste-focused non-profit ReFed. “Most cities are at the stage of still needing the policy.”

A person throws garbage into separated waste bins to recycle waste materials at a rest stop of an expressway in southern Seoul.
A person throws garbage into separated waste bins to recycle waste materials at a rest stop of an expressway in southern Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

While it will ultimately fall to individual states and cities to figure out the specific recycling policies best suited to their unique environments, the South Korean model illustrates some of the core principles that might guide this process. “When it comes to larger-scale municipal organics recycling, in the United States, like in South Korea, convenience and cost effectiveness are essential to garner political will and participation from residents,” said Madeline Keating, city strategist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Cities like Denver, for example, are exploring a volume-based pricing strategy similar to South Korea’s pay-as-you-throw system. Ease-of-use, most notably in the form of curbside pickup, is also critical. “For households, you have to collect it at home,” said Gunders, of ReFed. “There’s no way you’re going to hit any critical mass if you have to take it somewhere.”

But there are cautionary tales in South Korea’s case, too. Although centralized recycling facilities are necessary in order to make a difference at scale – and currently much needed across the US – some municipal facilities in South Korea are already at their breaking points. And while on paper, South Korea’s food waste recycling rate is nearly 100%, there’s still a need for more diversified recycling and end-use streams.

The viability of recycled food waste as animal feed has been undermined by livestock diseases like avian influenza and African swine fever, while fertilizer made from compost has struggled to find takers even among the farmers who receive it from the government free of charge. “We need more public procurement, such as municipalities buying up this fertilizer to use for landscaping in public parks,” said Hong, the waste expert. “And we need more efforts to compost at the source, expanding many smaller models driven by resident participation rather than relying only on mass processing.”

To this end, national and municipal governments in South Korea have been actively investing in urban farming programs, which include composting courses and project grants.

“I think that concerned citizens composting their own food waste can be an important contribution to resource recirculation,” said Kwon Jung-won, a 63-year-old retiree who was recently hired part-time by the Seoul city government as a fertilizer consultant after completing a composting accreditation course. Funded in part by a grant, Kwon currently teaches members of Geumcheon-gu’s urban farming network how to compost everyday food waste into fertilizer. “Doing this at a large-scale farm would make a big difference environmentally, and I see this project as a pilot for that,” he said.

A person walks past a rubbish processing facility in Seoul, South Korea.
A rubbish processing facility in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

These sort of community-based efforts might be where the US can shine, increasing initial access to composting options in cities that presently have few other options, and taking advantage of backyard composts that can feed gardens. “These smaller-scale methods have the advantage of removing materials from the municipal waste stream by involving consumers and households directly in their food waste recycling, and often yield additional benefits such as job creation and production of compost products that enrich local soil,” said Madeline Keating of the NRDC.

The most sustainable approach to composting, of course, is to not view it as a magic bullet. No amount of recycling can replace the more fundamental solution of simply eliminating waste at the source, and this is an area where individual effort – not hi-tech solutions – can make the biggest impact. Examples of this might be not throwing out food just because it’s past its label date (it’s OK to trust your senses to determine if it’s spoiled or not, experts say) and not over-buying or over-preparing food.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Keating. “Each individual needs to look at why food goes to waste in their own kitchen and find opportunities to prevent that from occurring.”

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