South Korea Legislates Towards a Zero Waste Society

South Korea’s approach to legislating waste management shows why resource recovery needs to take centre stage in the future of the industry.

At just over 100,000 square kilometres, South Korea could fit into Australia almost 77 times. Across this relatively small land mass, the Asian economic powerhouse is home to over 50 million people, around half of whom live in the Seoul capital area, the second largest city in the world with more than 25 million residents.

It’s facts like these that make the concept of proper waste management an imperative for the South Korean government. Since the mid-1980s, South Korea has seen its landfill rates drop from over 90 per cent to under 10 per cent, while its recycling rates have grown from under 10 per cent to over 80 per cent.

While Australia has made great strides towards reducing landfill rates, in South Korea’s shadow, it still has a way to go. Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the country is still sitting at 58 per cent recovery rates and 42 per cent of waste disposed to landfill. Although much of this is generated by the construction industry, households still account for around 27 per cent of total waste generation.

The story of how South Korea managed to so successfully turn around its landfill rates was put forward by Professor Yong-Chil Seo, of the Department of Environmental Engineering in Yonsei University, and associates, in a paper published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management last year.

In their article ‘Past, Present and future of waste management in Korea’, Yong-Chil, alongside Won-Seok Yang, Jun-Kyung Park, and Se-Won Park, found that the government’s approach to legislation has played a central role in transforming the country’s approach to waste, setting the path towards a zero waste society.
Although the introduction of new technology has been pivotal, as Yong-Chil tells Waste Management Review, the government had to first adopt a new paradigm in terms of how it saw its waste.

“I think both technology development and legislation have affected the decrease in landfill by increasing recycle rate,” says Yong-Chil. “However, the legislation came first to be enforced with supporting technology and utilisation.”

From Seclusion to Reduction

Yong-Chil outlines that a pivotal moment in South Korea’s waste management was the Waste Management Law, which came into effect in December 1986. The law replaced the Filth and Cleaning Law (1973) and the Environmental Protection Law (1963) that had regulated general waste and industrial waste, respectively, in South Korea until that point.

These previous management principles were essentially about encouraging the population to ensure their waste looked “nice and not dirty”, explains Yong-Chil. For industrial waste, the laws were mainly about the protection of hazardous material.

The Waste Management Law introduced in 1986, however, provided a framework that waste management was not just about containment, but about reducing waste in general. It applied what was becoming a global standard in waste management: the hierarchy of the three ‘Rs’: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

“The 3Rs as the first priorities were more essential in Korea, due to [limited] land with no places to dispose of [waste] and the high price of land, which could promote to drive such 3R practices more efficiently,” says Yong-Chil.

With this approach in place, Yong-Chil explains the government was then well positioned to enact supporting legislation, and fund projects that promoted this approach to waste.

“With this concept and legislation that followed the Waste Management Laws… the government had put in a lot of effort to promote the technology development and utilisation by funding the installation of large-scale commercial plants, and the research and development of recycling, incineration, and intermediate treatment from the beginning of the 1990s until 2005,” he says.

“Most incineration plants and recycling facilities were constructed in this period, and the research and development projects on new technology were driven and supported by the government of South Korea.”

Polluter Pays

One important law the government introduced during this period was the Act on Resource Saving and Recycling Promotion, enacted in 1992. This law was fundamental in reducing household waste by introducing a volume-based garbage rate system for household waste, using the concept of polluter pays. Under the law, each household needed to buy designated garbage bags at a supermarket and could only discharge waste using the prepaid bags.

At the industrial level, in the same year the government introduced legislation to promote extended producer responsibility (EPR). Under the previous system, industrial waste was only legislated where is constituted a hazard. Under the new framework, all waste produced at the production level was classified as industrial, regardless of weather it was hazardous or not, making companies fully accountable for all the waste they produced.

The EPR system was further articulated to apply to e-waste, through the Resource Circulation Act of Electric & Electronic Products and Automobiles.

Through this legislation, Yong-Chil explains that the South Korean government created an essential framework to direct funding towards supporting innovations that would help the nation’s people and industries comply with the new laws.

“Such legal systems enhanced the technology development, by constructing facilities and conducting research and development,” he says. “Such efforts decreased landfill rates by increasing recycling rates between 1990 and 2005.”

Resource Circulation Society

South Korea is now looking to take the next step in waste management, by once again fundamentally changing how it views its waste. While the 1986 law shifted the concept of waste from something that needed to be controlled and contained, to something to be reduced, a new set of laws will now consider waste as an important national resource.

The legislation entitled ‘The Promotion Law for Achieving a Resource Circulation Society’ integrates all existing laws, taking the fundamental approach that waste needs to be used more efficiently. Yong-Chil explains that the law, proposed to congress in late 2014, is looking to set a waste management plan for the next 10 years for local and central governments by setting a goal of resource circulating rates, while also regulating the performance of resource circulation industries in the regions.

The law will be important in promoting the use of resource circulation products. It will try and solve the dilemma that many companies face in struggling to find a market for their recycled materials.

“The recycled market needs to be promoted and the collection rate for industrial wastes such as [e-waste] and industrial product wastes must increase. Some recycled products cannot easily find a proper market,” says Yong-Chil.

The new law will also further articulate the concept of extended producer responsibility by assessing the resource circulation capability of consumer products, and issuing certificates for circulating resources.

Currently, the South Korean government requires energy recovery from waste combustion. The new law will provide another mechanism to enforce this rule, by charging a disposal tax for landfill waste and incineration waste facilities that don’t apply any energy recovery.

Finally, the new law will create a framework to ensure companies engaged with resource recovery are getting the support they need. The law will provide supporting funds and technology for industries actively circulating their resources.

Zero Waste Society

With the new legislation under way, Yong-Chil says that South Korea is on a steady path to becoming a zero waste society. The government has set a goal to accomplish a 3 per cent landfill rate and 87 per cent recycle rate by 2020.

While the ratification has been slightly delayed due to “some conflictions between stakeholders”, Yong-Chil is confident the law will pass. In less than a decade, South Korea could be taking the lead in showing how legislating resource recovery is the future of responsible waste management.

“It may be a bit extended to the year 2025 to achieve this goal, which could be the reference point [for South Korea] to become a zero waste society,” concludes Yong-Chil.

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