Posted : 2013-06-04 17:26
Updated : 2013-06-04 17:26

More food waste, more disposal charges

A resident disposes of food waste at his apartment in Songpa-gu, southern Seoul, on Sunday, using a radio frequency identification (RFID) system that calculates the weight of waste automatically and imposes fees based on the data. / Korea Times photo by Hong In-ki

New disposal system causes confusion

By Nam Hyun-woo, Baek Byung-yeul, Park Ji-won

Smart waste disposal has always been a big issue in a small but densely populated country like Korea, where around 50 million people live.

The country has recently implemented a new waste disposal system. Last Sunday, the municipal and provincial governments started to charge residents for food waste disposal based on weight.

Currently, 129 out of 229 local governments participate in the pilot project. The new system is expected to reduce the amount of annual food waste by up to 20 percent, saving local authorities about 5 trillion won ($44 billion) in waste treatment cost, according to the Ministry of Environment.

However, residents are not yet accustomed to the new system and are confused about how it works exactly.

How the food waste disposal system works

The weight-based food waste disposal system can be done in three ways: through using designated wastebaskets, pre-paid authorized plastic bags and wastebaskets with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags.

The wastebasket method is similar to the standard food waste disposal system, where residents put food waste into designated wastebaskets.

In Seoul, Seodaemun district has been implementing this system in more than 20 households residing in apartment complexes. Participating households dispose of their food waste into a 120-liter wastebasket with a designated sticker. The apartment complex's management office empties those baskets when they become full. Each household pays an average 1,300 won ($1) a month for the garbage collection.

Meanwhile, the pre-paid authorized plastic bag method involves putting food waste into an authorized bag before throwing it into a food wastebasket. Authorized waste bags are sold at grocery stores and are priced differently according to district. For example, a one-liter bag costs 35 won in Seoul's Gangbuk district but 80 won in Gangnam district.

The final method uses wastebaskets with RFID tags. Residents who use this method put their food waste in a plastic wastebasket with an RFID tag. The RFID tag can read the resident's name and address which is stored in his or her RFID cards.
The RFID method is the most efficient way of reducing the food waste volume, according to the government. However, it has a high installation cost, which averages 2 million won ($1,700) per basket.

Confusion about the different disposal methods

Despite the government's good intentions, residents in the various districts are still confused about the new RFID method, specifically about how it works and the costs. This confusion is due to a lack of publicity or promotion for the method.
Dongdaemun district, which has more detached houses than other districts in Seoul, has suffered a setback in implementing the new system.

Residents in the district use white garbage bags for non-recyclable waste, non-standard transparent bags for recyclable waste and orange bags for food waste. In the district, three or four houses share a disposal area, usually situated beside an electricity pole or a streetlight.

Each town has a designated day for waste disposal. For instance, residents in Jegi-dong can dispose of their garbage every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

However, most residents don't appear to be aware of the designated days and dispose of their garbage whenever they want.

Residents dispose of their garbage at arbitrary times and days, such as on their way to work or school.

By not following the designated days, residents are causing garbage to sit on streets for a long time, polluting the area.

Residents themselves complain about the dirty streets. However, since there are no obvious and effective alternatives, the Dongdaemun office simply overlooks the arbitrary disposals of garbage.

"For non-recyclable trash, the white standard bags cover dirty items partially. But when it comes to recyclable waste, I am quite convinced that nobody uses the transparent plastic bags. Added to that, I think a very small number of people separate their recyclable and non-recyclable waste," a resident in Hwigyeong-dong said on condition of anonymity.

An even bigger problem is that stray cats and dogs tear apart the garbage bags left on the street.

"I have to admit that those animals are very annoying, even though they are also pitiful," said a garbage collector while picking up dozens of garbage bags on Friday at Hwigyeong-dong.

Another problem with the RFID method has to do with payment. On July 2 last year, after a six-month trial, Pohang in North Gyeongsang Province implemented a weight-based waste disposal system, in which the more food waste residents throw away, the higher the disposal fees they have to pay. Residents slot in a "T Money" card, which is a pre-paid transportation payment card to open the trash can and pour in the food waste. The high-tech trash can has an RFID device that automatically weighs the garbage disposed and takes the appropriate amount of money from the card.

Alongside shop owners, residents are complaining about the overall difficulty and inconvenience of the new waste disposal system.

"It is inconvenient compared to how we throw away food waste in the past. But it is designed to protect the environment by encouraging people to dispose of less food waste," said Oh Gwang-ju, a resident at Daejam-dong in Pohang. "I go grocery shopping less than before in order to reduce food waste," she added.

"Sometimes, the machine (RFID trash can) breaks down. When this happens, residents have to keep their food waste, which easily rots and stinks up their houses," Oh said.

"Selfish residents leave food waste beside the machine in order not to pay the littering cost. Since one has to pay, nobody is willing to put the left-behind waste into the machine. I think that is the loophole of this system," she added.

People seek alternatives to reduce cost

Many people are reducing their food waste, and consequently, disposal cost by using waste-disposal units. Waste-disposal units are machines that dry and shrink food waste.

There are several waste-disposal units available on the market. One is the Apple FD-3000R food waste drier by Haan Corporation, a medium-sized household appliance manufacturer. The drier sterilizes food waste in four levels and then dries it. The drier reduces food waste volume by up to 20 percent.

Another is the Loofen waste-disposal unit. The product has become very popular among housewives, having sold over 1 million units since it was introduced in 2003.
The waste-disposal unit market peaked in 2007 with 200 billion won ($176.2 million) in sales but declined to 50 billion won in 2009 because of high electricity consumption.

"More consumers will consider disposal units because of the higher costs for more waste. Disposal units are expected to be a solution for reducing additional garbage collection fees," a market watcher said on condition of anonymity.

A better solution

Many consider the "garbage disposer" or wet-waste shredder as a potentially better solution to the high cost of food waste disposal.

However, since 1995, installing disposers in the sink has been banned after drain pipes became clogged with shredded food waste, causing a sewage disposal plant to shut down.

Due to the confusion about the new RFID method, many expect installing disposers to become legal again mainly in new towns such as Gaun district in Namyangju, Gyeonggi Province, in the second half of the year.

The environment ministry recently implemented a pilot study to test the effectiveness of the garbage disposer. Though it costs about 6 million won ($5,300) to install one, over 90 percent of the residents who participated in the study were satisfied with the disposer they were furnished with. However, the region where the pilot study was conducted had good sewage systems. The effect of the disposer has not yet been examined in regions with poor sewage systems.

"Because this project will help solve the inconveniences of the residents in garbage disposal, we will carry this plan forward to those regions that meet the conditions for food waste disposal," a ministry spokesman said.

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