[Editorial] Curbing food waste

By Yu Kun-ha
  • Published : Jan 22, 2013 - 19:09
  • Updated : Jan 22, 2013 - 19:09
Food waste collection facilities in many of Seoul’s 25 wards stink to high heaven as private food waste disposal companies have stopped processing the food waste collected there amid disputes over fee hikes.

Residents near these facilities will have to endure the odor of rotting food waste as ward offices and waste disposal companies are unlikely to reach a deal any time soon.

The disputes were triggered by the government’s ban on dumping the liquid that leaches out of food waste into the sea, which went into effect on Jan. 1.

The decision was in compliance with the London Convention on prevention of marine pollution. A year ago, the government prohibited the disposal at sea of livestock excrement and sewage sludge. Next January, it will stop companies from discharging industrial waste water and sludge into the sea.

Although the government announced its plan to forbid the dumping of food waste water at sea a long time ago, neither ward offices in Seoul nor many of the disposal companies that they relied on were prepared for the change.

The ban has increased the cost of handling food waste as treating food waste water on land is much costlier than dumping it at sea. So waste disposal companies around the country demanded more money. In other parts of the nation, local governments increased the fees substantially.

In Seoul, however, negotiations broke down. Until last December, waste disposal companies received about 80,000 won per ton of food waste. They are now demanding the fee be raised to 125,000 won to 134,000 won per ton, up by more than 50 percent. In contrast, ward offices suggest a maximum of 115,000 won per ton.

To mediate between the two sides, the Ministry of Environment intervened but failed to narrow the gap. The ministry said it would come up with a guideline on fee hikes soon and seek to resolve the disputes within this month.

Much of the blame for the trouble Seoul citizens are experiencing should be laid at the doorstep of the city government and ward offices. The city government promoted four new recycling facilities, on top of the existing five, to stop outsourcing waste disposal to private companies.

According to reports, private companies handle 46 percent of the city’s food waste water, while the remaining 54 percent is processed by public recycling centers.

Had the new facilities all been built as planned, the city could have averted the fiasco. But it could not complete the projects in the face of opposition from residents. It should have found ways to overcome residents’ resistance.

The ward offices are at fault for having contracted out food waste disposal to companies regardless of whether they were equipped with their own treatment facilities or not.

As a result, many of the disposal companies they rely on do not have their own wastewater treatment facilities. This means even if disputes on fee hikes are settled, these companies will still have problems in disposing of the grey water from food waste.

All these problems highlight the need for households and restaurants to reduce their food waste. Due to Korea’s unique food culture, they tend to throw away a large amount of food waste.

The government estimates that 50 million Koreans produce up to 170,000 tons of food waste daily, or about 350 grams per person a day. The annual loss of economic value due to food wastes exceeds $1.5 billion and the disposal cost alone is estimated at $600 million a year.

To curb food waste, the government needs to reform the current volume-based fee system, which was introduced in 1995. This system has been highly successful but the nation needs a more effective, weight-based system that would charge businesses and residents for every pound of food waste they throw away.

Along with this new approach, the government needs to have households bear a larger share of the food waste disposal costs. Currently, each household produces about 20 kg of food waste a month and pays about 1,000 won for the disposal service, shouldering less than 50 percent of the costs involved. This share needs to be raised to over 80 percent.

It is also necessary to develop more advanced technologies to recycle food wastes into compost and animal feed and to covert them into biogas, a type of clean fuel that can be used as power.