The country that went from recycling 2% of food waste to 95%

Research suggests that the one billion that go hungry could be fed on less than a quarter of the food wasted in the US and Europe.

With food waste a significant contributor to the climate crisis, it is more important than ever to find ways to reduce our food wasting habits.

This post celebrates South Korea's journey from recycling just 2% of its food in 1995, to 95% today - a transition from one of the highest global food wasters to one of the lowest.

So what's the story behind this amazing transformation?

It all started with side dishes.

Traditional South Korean cuisine is served with banchan - side dishes including pickles, fresh veg and fruit, given to diners free of charge to accompany their meal.

South Korean banchan side dishes. Food waste and sustainability in South Korea
Traditional South Korean meals are served with complimentary side dishes called banchan

South Korean portions are famously generous as it is, so the banchan were often left virtually untouched. This is – in part – what contributed to South Korea possessing some of the highest food wastage rates in the world.

This waste lead to citizens campaigning to the government, which after a ban on any unwanted food going to landfill - introduced way back in 2005 - lead to compulsory food waste recycling in 2013.

How does compulsory food waste recycling work?

To make this viable, South Koreans pay for biodegradable bags in which to discard leftover food.

The average four-person family pays $6 a month for the bags and this charge covers 60% of the running costs for the government scheme.

Residents check in at high tech bins around cities using an ID card. At this deposit point, the bags are weighed and the user is charged accordingly.

Smart bins in South Korea weigh food waste and charge accordingly. Sustainability, green news and events in Brighton & Hove
Smart bin weigh food waste, charging residents to the nearest gram

City officials have said this system has reduced food waste in Seoul by an average of nearly 8,000 tonnes per year since the scheme started.

Residents are also urged to remove moisture before visiting the bins. This not only saves them money, but also the government in terms of the cost of collection since food waste is around 80% moisture.

How is the food waste recycled?

Waste collected using the biodegradable bag scheme is squeezed at the processing plant to remove any remaining moisture. Any leftover food juice is siphoned off and put into an anaerobic digester to create methane which is used as biogas and bio oil.

Some dry waste is turned into fertiliser which is helping to drive the country’s exploding growth in urban farming and the remainder is being used as animal feed.

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