With no hard rules, food waste continues to grow
Korea produces over 20,000 tons of food waste per day, yet there is no authority that keeps track of what the waste consists of or how much is composted. Some food goes straight from storage to trash.
At one supermarket in Seodaemun District, western Seoul, staff repeatedly toss food into a container that dries and grinds the waste before sending it off into the sewage. The container, with a 200 liter (44 gallon) capacity, is almost always full. Vegetables and seafood left on the shelves at the end of the day all go to waste. No one at the supermarket knows how much food is being thrown away.
“Plastic used to pack [food] is recycled, but frankly speaking, no one thinks much about cutting down on food waste,” said a worker at the supermarket.
While many environmental activists focus on other issues like zero carbon emission or minimizing the use of plastic, cutting down on food waste is seldom mentioned, even after the central government set up a series of measures for it in 2010. In 2013, jobs related to food waste disposal and management were assigned to each regional government and district, but many didn’t keep an eye on the issue.
The amount of food waste has continued to grow. According to a report by the National Assembly Research Service, the amount of food waste in 2019 was 21,065 tons, up 31 percent from 16,032 tons in 2013. This accounts to the average person in Korea throwing away 407 grams of food every day.
Food waste at food manufacturing facilities continuously went up from 2016 — from 1,010 tons a day in 2016 to 1,452 tons a day in 2019. One-fourth of food thrown away in Korea was tossed into the trash without ever making it to the table.
“Food companies are less interested in cutting down on food waste than individual consumers,” said research fellow Ju Mun-sol of Korea Environment Institute, who specializes in sustainable consumption, waste management and material flow analysis, and led the research for the National Assembly Research Service’s report on food loss. “Also, it is very unclear whether the waste from each of these companies is properly processed.”
The increasing amount of food waste heavily relates to the recent increase in meal kits available on the market and food delivery services.
For instance, a chunk of fish in a meal kit may be precut to make the fillet rectangular, throwing away the cut edges even though they are edible.
“A change in consumer behavior has caused demand for conveniently packed food, processed food and food delivery to rise, and has made an impact on producing more food waste,” said Ju. “There is a higher chance of [Korea] seeing more of such food waste in the future.”
The real problem lies in that because there is no record of how much food is being disposed of, whether it is being properly disposed of, or its composition, no government official knows where to begin to cut down on food waste. While state-run institutes can analyze how much food waste comes out of individual homes as they collect them, the statistics for food waste coming from private food companies, which usually hire a separate entity to process their food waste, are long lost.
At a buffet-style restaurant in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, three bins for food waste, each with 120 liters of capacity, practically fill up by 5 p.m., with untouched food from dinner the day before and lunch that day. Employees don’t know how much food waste collects each day, as a private company comes over to pick up whatever the staff put out.
Eight other large restaurants in Gangnam District and Mapo District, western Seoul, also do something similar.
“Since the companies that pick up food waste say they compost it, we have not thought much about cutting down on the waste we make,” said the owner of a grill restaurant in Mapo District.
The JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, checked with 11 food companies in Korea, but none said they keep track of how much food waste they make nor do they have any plan to cut down.
“There are many leftover foods that are still [edible], but we don’t know how to make better use of them,” said an official at a local food company. “We do try to cut down on the amount of food waste, but we don’t keep any records of what’s left over.”
Although the country's current waste control act requires companies that dispose of a large amount of food to provide plans to cut down on their waste, in reality, the companies are considered to have done their job as long as they file a copy of a contract they made with a registered waste collector. An official at one district office in Seoul confirmed that the contracts do get checked, but they don’t require companies to submit their plan to cut down on their food waste.
An Environment Ministry official said, “Although we need to know the amount of food waste that has actually been composted or processed [for food waste management], it’s not easy to keep track unless each business files a report on how it deals with its waste.”
Some businesses have started to focus more on making the most out of what they would normally throw away. One local company gathers rice bran and soy pulp from other food businesses in an attempt to make something entirely different, an official with the company said.
“Korea in general does not get the concept of food upcycling,” said Hong Su-yeol, director of a center that studies the circulation of resources and its social and economic impacts. “Food waste isn’t just waste, but food resources for the future.”
Hong added that policies on how to better use leftover food should be set up and local businesses should abide by that rule. Currently, there is no rule on what to do with these leftovers.
Heo Seung, an interest group manager from Green Korea, agrees that the priority is encouraging local businesses to keep records of its food waste. Then the government can use the data to come up with a feasible plan to reduce the amount.
The Environment Ministry has not announced any new policy again this year, but it did set up a goal to produce more biogas using food waste.
“The government has shown its will to make food waste another resource, yet over the past 10 years, it never sent out a signal that Korea needs to cut down on food waste,” said research fellow Ju of the Korea Environment Institute, adding that the country needs to take a more systemic approach to make changes.
The institute’s executive Kim Mi-hwa suggests raising the fee for disposing of food waste or giving incentives to companies who successfully cut down on food waste to the level they target to achieve.
BY JEONG JONG-HOON, PYUN GWANG-HYUN AND CHANG YOON-SEO [firstname.lastname@example.org]