The habit of recycling in South Korea

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Author: Seline Suriel Núñez

South Korea is a leading country in waste management, especially in the recycling of food waste. In 1986, the Waste Management Law was enacted in South Korea with the aim of promoting the practices of the “Three R’s”: reduce, reuse, and recycle. However, it was in 1992 that the government introduced the Act on Resource Saving and Recycling Promotion, which marked a milestone in implementing the “polluting pays” principle. This law established a fee for waste management and required the purchase of special garbage bags for use in this system. In this blog, I will explain how they achieved it and what benefits their implementation has caused for the environment and the economy.

(Find out how South Korea has gone from recycling 2% of its food waste to 95%). Photo taken from ecoinventos (2022).

Since 2005, South Korea has banned the dumping of food in landfills and made it a valuable resource. Consumers, restaurant owners, truck drivers, and other people are part of the network that collects them and makes them useful. Likewise, local governments have built hundreds of centers to process them, and for this, they have implemented a series of public policies that encourage citizens to reduce and separate their organic waste.

One of these policies is the use of smart containers, which record the amount and weight of the waste that each user deposits, and have a volume-based waste collection charge system (VBMF). In this way, a rate is charged proportionally to the volume of garbage generated, which motivates people to waste less food.


Another policy is the mandatory recycling of food that is carried out in specialized plants, many of which are recognized for their management plans, by focusing on a specific area. Some of them are:

The Mapo Anaerobic Digestion Plant in Seoul: converts organic waste, including food, into biogas and fertilizer.

(WELTEC BIOPOWER builds a 7 megawatt biogas plant near Seoul). Photo taken from WELTEC BIOPOWER (2020).

The Namyangju Composting Plant: processes food waste and converts it into high-quality compost.

(This is how South Korea takes advantage of its food waste). Photo taken from The New York Times (2023).

The Food Resource Extraction Plant in Gyeonggi-do: it focuses on the recovery of valuable resources from food waste. They use advanced technologies to separate and extract useful ingredients, such as oils, proteins, and nutrients, from them.

(This is how South Korea takes advantage of its food waste). Photo taken from The New York Times (2023).

These processes make it possible to take care of the environment in the country, contributing to all of South Korea through each of these systems, since these products can be used for agriculture, industry, and energy generation.

Thanks to these measures, South Korea went from recycling 2% of its food waste in 1995 to 95% in 2019, and according to these figures from the municipality of Seoul, there are currently more than 6,000 smart containers that have been distributed throughout the city, which has led them to reduce 47,000 tons of garbage from 2013 (the year in which the law on the mandatory use of biodegradable bags came into force) to 2019, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gases and saving natural resources.

This law moves through the “Pay As You Throw” system. The initiative is based, on the one hand, on the collection of special biodegradable bags, and, on the other hand, on the payment for the weight of organic waste, a fee that covers 60% of the cost of the operation of the plan and that indirectly contributes to promoting composting at home, a mixture of decomposing organic matter in aerobic conditions that is used to improve the structure of the soil and provide nutrients.

(A “polluters pay” policy helps Seoul reduce household waste going to the landfill by 90% and waste generated by the city by 40%). Picture taken from: Development Asia (2019).

South Korea has become an international benchmark in waste management, standing out as a successful example of how to effectively address this problem and turn it into an opportunity for sustainable development. Through its innovative approach and its solid recycling system, the country has shown that waste is not only a problem, but also a valuable solution to boost the circular economy and preserve natural resources.

Written by: Seline Suriel Nuñez

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero


(June 17, 2023) This is how South Korea takes advantage of its food waste,cientos%20de%20centros%20para%20procesarlos

(November 24, 2022) What is compost and what are its phases? The power of living soilún%20el%20’Manual%20del%20compostaje,del%20suelo%20y%20proporcionar%20nutrientes

(August 9, 2021) Knowing the successful recycling system in South Korea

(May 16, 2022) The recycling policy in Korea “Pay what you throw away”

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