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Global Food Waste Crisis South Korea Leads the Way with Innovative Recycling

Korea Recycles 97% of its Food Waste with Innovative Recycling

In a world starkly divided by food availability, a recent United Nations report has highlighted a glaring contradiction: as hundreds of millions face severe hunger, millions more waste staggering amounts of food daily.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Food Waste Index Report 2024 reveals that households worldwide discarded more than 1 billion meals every single day in 2022. This food wastage occurred while over 783 million people, nearly one-third of humanity, grappled with food insecurity.

Overall, 1.05 billion tons of food went to waste that year, with households contributing the largest share—631 million tons, or up to 60 percent.

Despite this global challenge, South Korea has emerged as a beacon of hope and a potential model for other nations. Over the past three decades, the East Asian country has drastically improved its food recycling rate from a mere 2 percent to over 95 percent, demonstrating that large-scale change is possible.

South Korea’s Remarkable Journey

In 2019, South Korea generated an average of 14,314 tons of food waste per day, of which 96.2 percent, or 13,773 tons, were recycled. This impressive recycling rate followed similar figures in previous years, with a 97 percent rate in 2018 and 97.1 percent in 2017, according to the South Korean Environment Ministry.

The transformation began in the 1990s when the nation faced a burgeoning waste crisis exacerbated by rapid urbanization. Doun Moon, a policy researcher at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) based in Seoul, told Anadolu that South Korea responded by becoming one of the first countries to implement a nationwide volume-based system for food waste.

Volume-Based Waste Fee System

The Volume-Based Waste Fee (VBWF) system introduced economic incentives for people to reduce their waste and increase recycling. Under this system, households were given five different kinds of waste bags to sort their trash into categories, including domestic and food waste, each with different disposal fees.

Within a decade, the VBWF system reduced waste generation by 23 percent and diverted 53 million tons of waste from landfills and incinerators. This shift led to cost savings of approximately $8 billion and a 175 percent increase in recycling.

Continued Innovations and Policies

Building on this foundation, South Korea banned direct landfilling of food waste in 2005 and introduced a “pay-as-you-throw” policy in 2014. That same year, the country began generating biogas from food waste, further increasing source separation and recycling.

A significant innovation was the implementation of a radio-frequency identification system (RFID) that allowed people to be charged monthly based on the weight of their food waste. Currently, this system is used in 166 municipalities, covering over 6.5 million households and 65 percent of apartments in the country.

Keys to Success

One of South Korea’s most significant achievements has been the exponential growth in recycling food waste, reaching around 97 percent. This success is attributed to the involvement of various stakeholders in the planning and execution process, including government officials, environmental groups, and civil society organizations.

However, the journey was not without challenges. Initially, there were concerns about illegal dumping to avoid the new charges. Over time, extensive education and awareness campaigns helped overcome these hurdles, ensuring widespread acceptance and compliance.


South Korea’s impressive progress in food waste management offers a powerful example for other nations grappling with similar challenges. As the world continues to struggle with the paradox of widespread hunger amid significant food wastage, the South Korean model provides a roadmap for achieving sustainable and effective waste management.