Korea’s garbage problem is also one of energy policy inconsistency

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Korea’s garbage problem is also one of energy policy inconsistency


Members of a Philippine environmental activist group protest the illegal exporting of trash from Korea at a port in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Jan. 13. They chanted that the Philippines is not Korea’s trash can. [GREENPEACE SEOUL]

Ordinary people aren’t aware that trash is a costly business.

It costs 150,000 won ($134) to 200,000 won to get rid of one ton of trash in Korea. But if you send a ton of trash to the Philippines, it only costs 70,000 won, which includes the transportation cost of 30,000 won.

As a result, Korea has been disposing its trash overseas.

Unfortunately, the countries that receive the trash aren’t so happy to get it anymore - especially when it’s snuck in.

Last July, a Korean company shipped 5,100 tons of trash to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and an additional 1,200 tons in October.

The consignee of the shipments in the Philippines declared them as plastic materials, not garbage, a statement proven false when authorities opened the containers. Illegal and hazardous waste materials were found, including intravenous lines, light bulbs and used batteries. That trash is being returned to Korea with a steep bill. And the reputation Korea has carefully cultivated in the rest of Asia through K-pop groups, television dramas and exotic makeup has gotten, well, trashed.

Behind the illegal export of trash lies the structural problem of excess use of disposal resources and constant changes by the government of its policies on converting waste to energy.

Experts say unless these problems are solved, Korea will face repeated garbage crises.

Since the illegal export of Korean trash was exposed by the Philippines, other countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand announced plans to ban trash imports. A year ago, China announced it would no longer accept trash from Korea.

Kim Mi-kyung, president of the Plastic Campaign Team at Greenpeace’s Seoul office, said that as of 2015, Koreans consume 132 kilograms (291 pounds) of plastic a year on a per capita basis.

“In terms of consumption, Korea ranks third among 63 countries that manufacture plastics, which is excessive,” Kim said. “The Environment Ministry needs to quickly adopt a policy that would reduce the use of disposable plastics as China and other Southeast Asian countries are starting to stop importing plastic waste.”

The most realistic and effective methods to tackle the problem is to encourage both reuse and recycling of waste.

One way to reuse waste is converting it into energy. In recent years, the Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) plant has been considered the most viable solution.

This is a process in which combustible wastes like paper, wood, synthetic fiber and synthetic resin - with the exception of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which generates dioxins - are selected, crushed and then dried to be turned into solid recovered fuel (SRF). This fuel is burned to produce heat and electricity.

Since Korea’s 168 waste incineration plants only produce heat, SRF plants that also generate power are considered even more effective.

The development of SRF plants started during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In July 2005, Roh’s government recognized SRF as an energy source that would replace fossil fuels.

Since SRF was being recognized as renewable energy, those power plants were eligible for renewable energy certificates that would allow policy incentives including government subsidies.

Japan also acknowledges SRF as a renewable energy source.

This trend continued under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, which approved the building of 23 SRF plants nationwide.

However, the situation changed with the current Moon Jae-in administration. During the presidential race of 2017, candidate Moon promised to lower fine-dust levels in the air by 30 percent during his term.

The SRF plants that were encouraged by three governments were suddenly labeled polluters.

In September 2017 - just four months after taking power - the current Environment Ministry announced a plan to tighten regulations on SRF.

Twenty-three SRF plants received government approval since 2013. But since the Moon government began in May 2017, only seven that were approved before the current administration are operating. Six of the projects were canceled, two are under review and one has seen construction halted. One is being tested, and one was shut down after a test.

The situation got tougher after a renewable energy reform bill by Democratic Party lawmaker Son Kum-ju passed the National Assembly last December. It disallows SRF plants from receiving the all-important renewable energy certificate. Without the certificate, SRF power plant operators won’t be eligible for incentives, including government subsidies.

The lawmaker claimed that SRF threatens the public’s health by emitting pollutants in the process of converting waste to energy.

One SRF project that failed is in Naepo New City in South Chungcheong.

Naepo Green Energy was established in May 2014 to build an SRF plant and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Naepo New City. The project attracted a lot of interest because the 66 megawatt SRF plant would be the biggest in the country.

In October 2015, the government approved the project. In February 2017, when Naepo Green Energy asked for approval for construction, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy put it on hold. The government was in dysfunction with the impeachment of President Park.

Since then, the company has made five construction requests. None were approved. In August 2018, it announced that it was giving up on the SRF plant. It decided to only build the more costly LNG plant, which is championed by the current government.

“Since the Naepo SRF plant project was canceled, other SRF projects are following suit,” said an official at an SRF company that requested anonymity.

Experts say the Moon administration is hurting the energy industry’s ecosystem.

“Combustible waste continues to pile up but there’s a limit to handling the waste with the existing incinerators,” said Hong Soo-yeol, head of the Recycling Social Economy Research Institute. “That’s why previous administrations over the last 10 years approved SRF plants as an alternative to simple incinerators.

“But without SRF plants being built, the waste problem is growing.”

Companies that collect, deliver and sort waste are seeing dwindling profits. As a result, these companies are dumping waste illegal or exporting it illegally overseas. SRF-related small- and medium-sized enterprises are also affected by the policy reversal by the current administration.

Samho Environment Technology was a solid SME that supplied SRF fuel to SRF power plants. In 2016, it invested 27 billion won to expand its facility to churn out 700 tons of SRF fuel a day from a previous 300 tons. It expected the 66 megawatt plant in Naepo, South Chungcheong to be a major customer.

When the SRF power plant was killed, Samho Environment Technology suffered a huge hit. The company had revenues of 16 billion won yearly and was such an industry model that Japanese companies used to tour its facilities. But its credit score dropped from A+ in 2015 to C last year, which is junk bond level.

In three years, its number of employees shrunk from 40 to 30.

“The government’s inconsistency on energy policy has turned a blue chip company to an insolvent company,” said Samho Environment Technology CEO Lee Jang-geun.

So are SRF power plants really bad polluters?

Busan E&E, an SRF power plant in Busan, has been operating since October 2013, and it has never received any complaints from residents living nearby.

The power plant has installed a five-stage system that prevents air pollution. The level of nitrogen oxide emitted from the plant is 26.12 parts per million (ppm), which is below the legal limit of 70 ppm.

Dust emitted from the plant is 0.79 milligram per cubic meter, far less than the legal 20 milligram per cubic meter.

“Changing from LNG to SRF, we were able to save around 3 billion won a year and our greenhouse gas emissions shrunk 16,940 tons,” said Lee Sang-seok, Busan E&E CEO.

The story of a plant planned Naju is much less cheery.

As part of the Roh administration’s national balanced development project, Naju was chose in 2007 to get a SRF power plant that would handle 444 tons of waste a day. The Korea District Heating Corporation invested 170 billion won in the project, which was completed in December 2017.

But with the new regulations imposed in September 2017, the project was caught in limbo.

Despite having already passed Environment Ministry tests, the government has not approved the startup of the plant. Its losses are estimated at over 20 billion won.

The heating corporation sued the Naju local government last February asking for compensation of 4.5 billion won. The prime minister’s office tried to solve the problem last year by holding eight meetings with related government departments but failed to reach a conclusion.

Last month, the South Jeolla government formed a committee of private and public sector representatives that would discuss the plant, but there is skepticism about any kind of happy ending.

And as the SRF plant sits idle, the Gwangju government has been busy burying waste in landfills.

“There’s a need to expand SRF plants that would burn and convert energy from waste as the Environment Ministry is pushing for a policy of zero landfills,” said Hong, head of the Recycling Social Economy Research Institute. “But the Moon government, on the other hand, is preventing SRF plants from being built to fulfill its promise of reducing fine dust.”

An Environment Ministry official who requested anonymity said the government is currently looking at all angles, including encouraging the public to reduce waste significantly.

BY CHANG SE-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]
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