South Korea offers Davos a model for recycling

HWASEONG, South Korea – At a vast recycling plant in this agricultural and industrial land city, the sound of sustainability is deafening.

The plans of the Recycling Management Corporation, one of the country’s nerve centers for plastic recycling, work around the clock, its maze of conveyor and sorting belts producing a din that could rival an airport runway.

Yet places like this recycling plant have helped South Korea achieve the No. 10th place in the “Green Future Index” this yearMIT Technology Review report. The World Economic Forum he cited the report on his websitelisting 10 countries that are models for a greener future.

As attendees gather at the World Economic Forum Summit in Switzerland’s bucolic mountains this month, factories like the ones run by Recycling Management tend to the daily routine of creating a greener planet.

Factories help South Korea achieve ambitious sustainability goals, which are reinforced by policy, messaging and enforcement.

South Korea, the size of Portugal but with a population of nearly 52 million, while surrounded by water on three sides and a hostile neighbor to the north, is like much of the rest of the planet: under pressure to make the most of your resources and do it before it’s too late.

That sense of urgency, ea The United Nations effort reaching an international agreement by 2024 to eliminate plastic waste could be in many minds at this year’s Davos Summit when the ecological fallout of the pandemic becomes clear.

“One of the things the pandemic revealed was an increase in the use of plastic for food deliveries and a sense of security with extra packaging around the world,” he said. Kristin Hughes, the director of resource circularity at the World Economic Forum. “Recycling has been suspended in many countries. It was not considered essential. “

Now that the crisis phase of the pandemic has passed, he said, it is time to change direction. “We need to move away from the take-use-dispose approach,” she said.

The challenge of consumption and disposal is evident throughout South Korea. A train ride through this country reveals patches of crammed houses, businesses and farms. There is little space for landfills. In fact, one of the largest in the country, which absorbs much of the waste of Seoul and its 10 million inhabitants, it should be full by 2025.

South Korea is also a major producer, exporting electronics, automobiles and appliances at breakneck speeds, which keeps it poised in the top 10 countries by GDP or close to that. This created the need for factories and shipyards, in an already crowded nation that scanned the room to accommodate them.

So recycling bins and food waste bins are ubiquitous, and 32-gallon food recycling bins line Seoul’s curbs just as cars line the streets in the capital’s infamous traffic.

At the Recycling Management factory on a recent afternoon, dozens of workers in protective clothing found themselves next to gasping conveyor belts, sorting and placing thousands of plastic bottles and sending them into their second or third lives.

The scorching temperatures in the rattling machinery removed the paper logos, then melted the plastic into small pieces known as PET or polyethylene terephthalate, chips that were then bundled into 1,540 lbs. bags to be shipped around the world and reused in items such as bottles and synthetic clothing. Two hundred of these huge bags are produced every day (except Sundays, when the factory is closed), representing, along with a sister facility in nearby Osan, 19% of South Korea’s total PET bottle recycling production.

“We collect, recycle and reuse,” said Im Sung-jin, Vice President of Recycling Management. “But the bigger picture for me is that we do it because we have an obligation to the planet.”

That notion of responsibility was at the heart of the Green Future Index, the second annual ranking of 76 economies “on their progress and commitment to building a low-carbon future.” It also identified nine other countries for their efforts towards goals such as reducing fossil fuel emissions, achieving carbon neutrality or increasing sales of electric cars.

South Korea was specifically highlighted for recycling. Its waste management system, known as jongnyangje, requires food, garbage, recyclables and bulky items to be separated in color-coded bags. The policy is strict, and there are both penalties for non-compliance (up to 1,000,000 Korean won, or about $ 785) and rewards for reporting offenders (up to $ 235).

“We look at what a country has done but also what will be done, both real and ambitious,” said Ross O’Brien, who led the research and drafting of the Green Future Index, in a telephone interview from his Hong Kong home. . “For example, no other country has as many new green patents per billion dollars of GDP as South Korea. Based on this, we believe South Korea is the most productive green innovation economy in the world.”

The report found that Singapore and South Korea were “the most ranked recycling economies in the world”, as they “regularly expand policy programs to encourage better waste management.”

The emphasis has had an impact: The average Korean citizen now throws away about 1.02 kilograms of household waste per day, about one third of the amount produced in 1991. Its recycling and composting rate is 60%, one of the most highest in the world, according to the World Bank.

By 2030, South Korea aims to do so reduce plastic waste by 50 percent and recycle 70 percent its. And a nationwide deposit return policy that charges 300 Korean won (about 25 cents) for all disposable coffee cups and other single-use beverage containers – and then refunds upon return – takes effect on June 10. .

Regarding food waste, the World Economic Forum praised South Korea as early as 2019, pointing out that the country recycled 95% of its food waste, up from 2% in 1995. Discharging most food into landfills was banned in South Korea in 2005 and mandatory recycling of food waste was introduced in 2013 at a cost of approximately $ 6 per month for biodegradable bags.

“This caused the public to be more active in separate collection as they had to pay for waste bags in proportion to their disposal,” said Kim Jong-min, deputy director of the waste-to-energy division of the Ministry of the Environment. “Before implementing the policy, food waste obviously created a bad smell and generated a large amount of leachate in landfills.”

However, the approach to recycling has changed here and in other countries so that it is no longer considered solely a consumer responsibility, according to MIT findings, which have been echoed by other environmental groups monitoring Asia.

One example is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for South Korean packaging, which started in 2003. Korea Packaging Recycling Cooperativea non-government agency, monitors and charges commissions to thousands of manufacturers.

“According to the EPR scheme, it’s all about product design, as the rates paid by manufacturers vary,” said Ma Jae Jeong, director of the resource recycling division at South Korea’s Ministry of the Environment. products are recyclable, the lower the commission. The manufacturer can pay a commission of up to 50% less for products that have the highest recyclability score. This gives companies a huge incentive to produce more recyclable products ”.

However, South Korea has failed in other areas, such as electricity generation.

“What the MIT report highlights is fantastic because South Koreans have a high level of awareness about climate change and we don’t have two opposing political parties, like in the US, arguing about its reality,” said Kim Joojin, lead director and founder of Solutions for Our Climate, a defense group based in Seoul. “But, at the same time, South Korea is burdened with an antiquated energy sector and lags behind other less wealthy nations. This is often at odds with its global image as a leader in so-called green technology. “

At the World Economic Forum, a session will focus on plastic pollution, following a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya in March in which 175 countries, including South Korea, have agreed to consider a binding resolution to eradicate plastic waste pollution in late 2024. The hope, Ms Hughes said, is that Davos will highlight the urgent need to produce sustainable practices around the world .

“It’s all this idea of ​​’take, use, reuse, refill, recycle’ and how we continue to use and reuse,” he said. “We are looking more and more at the circularity of resources. We are no longer simply throwing everything in the landfill. “

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