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.
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