My rude awakening about the recycling myth happened when I got COVID a few months back. It is safe to say that being sick and home alone in Seoul was bearable. It was easy to get meals and groceries delivered to my door. Yet, convenience aside, seven days of self-quarantine at home brought not just boredom, but also a pile of trash I could not take out—piling ever so quickly.
In those seven days, I produced more waste than what I would normally make in a month. Food containers, banchan’s—Korean side dishes—tiny containers, plastic packaging of fruits and veggies from my online groceries, plastic and aluminum packaging of pre-made porridge, and so forth. Those were not the usual trash I have since I have been trying to live “green”. I usually bring my eco bag when grocery shopping, use tumblers, and mostly cook my own meals. But the COVID-stricken days left me no choice but to live the easy way. And perhaps this is the more common way to live in the modern age. It then dawned on me how all the modern convenience comes with a hefty price.
A report from Statistic Korea shows how the online food delivery market transaction has been growing steadily in the past five years. It accounted for 21.17 trillion won from January to October 2021, soaring almost tenfold compared to 2017’s 2.73 trillion won. This number makes sense, as South Korea’s working hours are one of the longest among OECD countries in 2021. On average, each Korean citizen spends 1,915 hours per year working—placing Korea fifth on the list after Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Chile.
When you are spent after a whole day of working or studying, doing food take-out or delivery is much easier than preparing a meal. Similarly, having groceries delivered to your front door sounds a lot more convenient. Imagine thousands of people—or worse, millions in the world—doing this on a regular basis. The amount of trash mounding up annually is ever-growing.
South Korea’s best practice in waste management
South Korea takes pride in its waste management system, which tackles the issue from both upstream and downstream. In the upstream, since 2003 Korea has put up a regulation on extended producer responsibility (EPR). It mandates producers and importers of products with packaging materials to recycle certain amounts of waste from their products or packaging materials. This includes paper packs, metal cans, glass bottles, packaging materials made of synthetic resin; and products such as lubricants, batteries, tires, fluorescent lamps, and buoys for farming marine products. On the downstream, citizens are required to thoroughly sort their waste into food waste, non-recyclable waste, and recyclables. They also need to pay for their non-recyclables and food wastes per volume.
This system has been successful in decreasing the amount of waste generated from citizens, at least in Seoul, according to the World Bank. In 2018, Seoul’s citizens produced 9,493 tons of non-recyclable waste, which is a 32 percent decrease of the daily non-recyclable waste produced in 1996. On the other hand, the number of recycled waste has increased from 54.9 percent in 1996 to 84.4 percent in 2018.
South Korea’s achievement in waste management has been praised globally. For example, the World Bank has put up a “learning series” on solid waste management based on Korea’s experience. With South Korea ranking 10th at MIT Green Future Index 2022—the only Asian country in the top ten, among other European countries-, the country is also dubbed as one of the world’s best recycling economies.
Recycling is only the tip of the
This success, however, mostly came before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our lives. During the pandemic, the amount of non-recyclable waste understandably increased, particularly due to the amount of masks, gloves and protective clothes in hospitals. The pandemic also changed consumer behavior, in favor of consumer spending in online stores, food delivery services, and meal kit delivery services. The study goes on to say that as South Korea and the world recover from the devastating pandemic, this consumption pattern is likely to continue.
Even before the pandemic hit in 2020, some had pointed out the flaw in the system. Media reports including the Korea Times, Korea Herald, and BBC pointed out the existence of illegal dumping sites in Korea. The biggest one—approximately 170,300 tons of plastic and other recyclable waste—was found in Uisong, North Gyeongsang Province. According to the Ministry of Environment, there are approximately 1.2 million tons of illegally abandoned waste across South Korea, as cited by Greenpeace and Statista. If one of the world’s best recycling economies still struggles with illegal dumping, one can only imagine how the rest of the world deals with this complex and dirty problem.
So, is recyclable waste really recyclable? Apparently not, and many countries still export their waste to developing countries. Treating the waste problem when it has culminated as waste is like treating our COVID symptoms after being infected. The harm is done, and chances are high we will have prolonged side effects and complications from the infection. The same goes with waste infection.
Globally, only 9 percent of plastic is recycled. Another 19 percent is incinerated and more than 50 percent goes to sanitary landfills. Meanwhile, the remaining 22 percent is mismanaged–disposed of in uncontrolled dumpsites, burned in the open pit, or leaked into the environment–according to OECD’s Global Plastic Outlook. The report goes on to say that almost half of all plastic waste is generated in OECD countries. This shows how much more waste advanced economies produce than developing countries.
Moreover, plastic wastes travel far and wide, with the help of global waste-trade and shipments—a system that has been criticized by many as undermining the real problem.
These also raise deep colonial issues for the receiving countries, since they lack regulations and all the technologies to safely recycle, according to Jane Bremmer, Campaign Coordinator, National Toxics Network, Australia. As a result, a lot of plastic waste ends up burned, polluting the air, on top of our soil and water.
Plastic waste has a long life cycle; the very reason they sit at the top of the global waste problem. They are the source of macro and microplastic pollutants as they transform to land waste and marine litter. Microplastic found in freshwater and land, also in our food system, showed how this problem has become a crisis, impacting our lives. The amount of plastic litters accumulated in the rivers, lakes, and oceans have amounted to more than 130 metric tones (Mt). This will continue to be a problem for years as it is more difficult and costly to manage once they fragment into smaller particles. Therefore, tackling this problem at the end of this cycle, through recycling, is far too late. We must start at the beginning, by reducing the number of plastic production and consumption to prevent more waste.
Is modern always better?
There is one thing that ties the footprint of our wastes no matter where they end up–piling in our neighborhood dumpsters or floating in the oceans. Sitting at the top of this problem is our lifestyle and consumption pattern. The problem, as shown by the statistics above from OECD, is strongly tied to our economy. The more advanced an economy is, the easier its people can access plastic, all masked as modernity and safety. And as we consume more products packaged in plastic, we produce more waste.
I could draw a stark contrast in lifestyle when living in metropolitans like Seoul and Jakarta compared to living in smaller cities in Indonesia a few years back. In the big cities both in Korea and Indonesia, fruits and vegetables often come in neat plastic packages, especially when we buy our groceries online and in the supermarket. Unfortunately, such lifestyle has now seeped into smaller cities and every façade of our life where avoiding plastic seems impossible, even when we try to.
Writing this article made me miss Indonesia in the 1990s, before the plastic boom happened. As a kid I would open my lunchbox and smell the fragrant banana leaves that was used to package my food. That was an era where I saw my grandma go to the market bringing her own woven shopping basket to put the groceries. She did it not because it was fashionable nor environmentally friendly, but because it was how everybody lived at that time. It’s funny how we now struggle to go back to our past, once we realize the new and “modern” way is not always better. Life may not be as convenient back then, but if it means a better deal for the environment and our future, I will be gladly stuck in the past.
Anggrita Cahyaningtyas is currently pursuing a master’s degree on International Development cooperation at Yonsei University, South Korea. She started her career as a journalist in Indonesia, focusing on politics and developmental issues. She later changed her lane and became a science communicator to spread science and new knowledge to a wider audience. She is currently a producer and host for podcast on environment issues, Let’s Talk Trees.