In Seoul: You Waste, You Pay – The Good (Part 1)

Separating our trash has become commonplace, with the frequently-used categories of paper, plastic, glass, and others. However, in Seoul, residents are required to separate their food waste as well (Figure 1 and Video 1)

ST Food waste.png

Figure 1. The first time I was exposed to food separation and recycling policies was when I chanced upon an article from The Straits Times about a journalist’s culture shock over Seoul’s mandatory recycling and separating of food waste

Source: The Straits Times

Video 1: Food waste recycling and management system in Seoul

Source: Pulitzer Center


Background of food waste in Seoul

Unknown to many, the South Korean government had actually started a series of policies to reduce food waste since 1997. During that period, the exponential rise of South Korea’s disposable income and standard of living, as one of the Asian Tigers, compounded by the culture of Korean meals to consist of at least five to seven side dishes, inevitably led to an increase in food waste. However, the initial implementation had seen a more than 20% reduction in food wastage (Chrobog, 2015). Over the years, the reduction of food waste has helped to reduce greenhouse gas (Nahman et al., 2012) and consequently, effects of food waste on climate change (Hartmann and Ahring, 2006).

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 8.16.49 pm.png

Figure 2. Main types of food waste recycling and collection system in Seoul

Source: Seoul Metropolitan Government


The Good: Reducing the disconnectedness between consumers and their waste

The food waste policies in Seoul aided in reducing both the mental and physical distance of consumers and wastes. The act of collecting one’s food waste compel residents to be more conscious of how much waste they produce and hence, increasing accountability of their waste. This is evident by the annual reduction of food waste by 10% (Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2015). Furthermore, the physical distance of waste chains is diminished, with the separation and recycling done at home and in their neighbourhoods, instead of at the traditional transfer stations. Often, waste that is thrown ‘away’ naturally become ‘someone else’s’ responsibility – be it waste management companies, local municipalities or the government (Clapp, 2014: 4). Therefore, closing up this gap is important in reducing the disconnectedness and ignorance of consumers.

The Good: A useful guide for other cities 

Seoul’s food waste management system can be a useful guide for other cities to adopt. For example, cities studied by other members of this blog, such as Singapore, is closely similar to Seoul in terms of being a high-density populated city. In Singapore, no such policy has been implemented and in 2016, only 14% of food waste was recycled (NEA, 2016). However, food waste recycling in Singapore is largely derived from industries and hence, this indicates a huge potential of increasing food waste recycling by implementing policies on a household level.

Additionally, Seoul’s food waste recycling and management system serves as a good example and particularly important for developing cities that are experiencing rapid urbanisation now (Lee and Jung, 2017). One of the notable reasons for Seoul’s success in food waste reduction was its advantage and foresight on starting early before the burden of food waste management became too straining on the cities’ budget and landfills. The administrative districts of Seoul shoulder about 70% of the total food waste disposal cost and as such, there was an incentive to reduce food waste because a reduction of food waste management cost would allow the city to channel budgets to providing other social infrastructure. For example, a reduction of annual food waste generated by as little as 20% (KRW 20-30billion of management cost would be saved), would be enough to build 30 public day-care centres (Seoul Metropolitan Government, 2015).

Concluding thoughts

After learning more about the food waste management policies in Seoul, I feel that such solutions are less complicated than expected and see the benefits of normalising such practices to create a more sustainable world. Drawing parallels to how we, as Londoners, have adapted to using less plastic bags at supermarkets after the introduction of the 5p charge, I believe that while initial food waste separation policies may bring inconvenience, it is feasible to be integrated into people’s routines.

[591 words]


  • Chrobog, K. (2015) South Korea: Cutting Back on Food Waste. Pulitzer Center, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017].
  • Nahman, A., W. De Lange, S. Oelofse, S. and L. Godfrey. (2012) The costs of household food waste in South Africa. Waste Management, 32, 2147–2153.
  • Hartmann, H. and B.K. Ahring. (2006) Strategies for the anaerobic digestion of the organic fraction of municipal solid waste: an overview. Water Science and Technology, 53, 7–22.
  • Seoul Metropolitan Government (2015) Minimizing Food Waste: Zero Food Waste, Seoul 2018. Seoul Solution, [online]. Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017]
  • Clapp, J. (2002) The Distancing of Waste: Overconsumption in a Global Economy, in Princen, T., M. Maniates and K. Conca, Confronting Consumption. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 155-176.
  • NEA. (2016) Food Waste Management. National Environmental Agency of Singapore, [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Oct. 2017]
  • Lee, S. and K. Jung. (2017) Exploring Effective Incentive Design to Reduce Food Waste: A Natural Experiment of Policy Change from Community Based Charge to RFID Based Weight Charge. Sustainability, 9, 11, 2046, 1-17.

3 thoughts on “In Seoul: You Waste, You Pay – The Good (Part 1)”

  1. Hi Wei Xuan,

    Food waste recycling is indeed something very new to me and I liked how the video related the surcharge to wasted food during buffets to the food waste charge in our everyday lives. This made me question my preconceived notions of the applicability of food waste surcharge in our everyday lives and I thought ‘hey maybe it is applicable after all!’

    Indeed, many of us as consumers are very detached from our food wastes because it becomes relegated to this ‘invisible flow’ of materials that we discard, rendering them occult from our everyday lives (even though it is something that we produce everyday!)

    One thought that surfaced in my mind was the applicability to cities like Singapore (as you mentioned) though, given the much higher humidity and heat that the city experiences. Food goes bad really quickly in such environment and given the dense living environment in Singapore, there might be some resistance from residents in terms of having food waste collection points near where they stay? Imagine all the rodents and cockroaches it will attract, and also the stench D: Nonetheless, it is definitely an idea worth exploring and maybe Singapore could start off by recycling of fruit peels/ coffee grounds?

    I really enjoyed this post (: !


    1. Hi Yi Ming,

      Glad to hear that you share the interest in this topic as well! I guess food and waste, in general, is very relatable to us. 🙂

      I definitely agree that Singapore could start off with recycling of fruit peels/coffee grounds as baby steps are the way to go to prevent a public outcry!

      Similarly, Seoul does face the problems of heat and humidity in Summer such that it has almost become an annual affair to see reports on the severity of the odour from food waste during the hottest months of July and August. (e.g. So I can certainly understand where you’re coming from! In the context of Seoul, some methods utilised to reduce the odour include chemical cleaning, using Nanoporous Carbon Adsorbents, deodorant agent spraying, etc. to varying success. I guess the complexity here is how Seoul only faces this problem a few months a year, whereas Singapore will potentially experience the odours from food waste throughout the year. This probably then raises the dilemma of whether the investment in food waste charging technologies and the accompanying investment in odour management would be socio-economically practical. 😦

      Actually, you’ll be surprised to know that some citizens in Seoul have actually taken this into their own hands and developed the habit of designating an area of their freezer to keep their food waste, and bringing them out when it’s full or when it’s the day of collection. This helps to prevent the food waste from rotting outside and producing odour. Apparently, it doesn’t stink up the freezer too!

      When I first read about this and then noticed that this habit is quite widely adoptedly (seen in common day Korean dramas and Korean vloggers), I thought it is a very admirable citizen-led approach in solving urban problems. But as a Singaporean as well, I would think that it’ll be quite a drastic habit to cultivate. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

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