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Taking Recycling Seriously

BUSAN, South Korea — Among the many differences in day-to-day life for expats in Korea, one of the more conspicuous is the method of waste management — and no, I’m not talking about that sometimes noxious smell wafting out of the sewer grates. Recycling in Korea is not a task undertaken by a small portion of environmentally concerned citizens — it is a national mission entrenched in Korean law. Though the recycling process can initially seem thorough to the point of being tiresome, its importance reaches beyond vague projections and consequences quoted in the news.

The recycling system in Korea currently revolves around legislation based on the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) initiative, which came into effect in January of 2003. The program ensures that a substantial percentage of the waste materials resulting from the consuming of goods of producers and importers is recycled, rather than burned or dumped in landfills. The Korean Ministry of Environment (MOE) set out to extend responsibility for waste to the entire life-cycle of a product, and charges recycling dues to those companies who do not meet MOE-assigned targets. It has been calculated that, as a result of the EPR program, C02 emissions in Korea have been reduced by an average of 412,000 tons per year.

So, what are the implications for residents in Korea? For each individual, there is a duty to sort waste into different groups according to material so they may be collected at designated points in apartment blocks and other locations. Failure to adhere to these rules results in a nasty fine, and most likely a scolding from an irate building manager or security guard.

The effects of this system are visible everywhere in Korea. Chain coffee shops and fast food retailers require customers to sort their waste once they have finished. Carrier bags often come with a charge and plastic bags in particular are becoming much less common, as big stores such as Lotte Mart, E-Mart, and Home Plus have ceased handing them out to shoppers. The system is not without its faults: as there are no trash cans on the street, people often choose to litter rather than hold onto their garbage until reaching a recycling point, and unpleasant food waste containers are ubiquitous in many areas. Despite these complaints, to judge the Korean recycling effort as anything other than an impressive achievement would be misguided.

While it is hard at times to find a waste bin here, when you do, you get a wide variety

Economically speaking, the EPR program has been equally successful. In the first four years, it was responsible for 3,200 new jobs and has been attributed with creating 1.7 trillion won (approximately 1.5 billion US dollars) worth of economic benefits. The government predicts that by 2030, the renewable energy industry will be responsible for the generation of nearly 1 million jobs. 95% of grain and materials for fodder are imported, so the government has made efforts to create a resource-recirculating society whereby waste food is used in creating fertilizer and biogases which can be employed as fuel. To further bolster Korea’s green credentials, last July Lee-Myung Bak’s government vowed to dedicate a further 3.5 trillion won into green research and development projects by 2013, indicating the country’s continuing commitment to ‘green growth’. And that’s a waste management program you won’t turn up your nose at.

For some good info on recycling in Korea go here, here or here.




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