What If We Had to Pay For the Food We Waste?

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About 40 percent of food is wasted in the U.S. But what would happen to that number if we were forced to pay for every pound we threw away? Leon Kaye travels to South Korea where tossing food hits means emptying your wallet.

SK Telecom, Korea’s largest wireless carrier, has designed food waste bins with equipment that will weigh food waste to the nearest gram. Photo: Leon Kaye

Are you an avid recycler and a composting fiend who feels burned that you’re still paying the same garbage collection rate as your non-recycling neighbors? Korea has had a pay-as-you-go system for years, and will soon implement an aggressive disposal management system that will charge businesses and residents for the exact amount of food waste they throw away.

Estimates suggest that as much as 40 percent of food in the United States and United Kingdom is wasted. The reasons are all over the map: large portion sizes at restaurants, regulations that make it difficult for retailers to donate fresh food to charities, and confusing “sell by” or “best before” dates that lead too much food going from shelf to garbage bin. This issue is similar in countries that enjoy a high standard of living.

Korea’s rate of overall food waste is comparable to the U.S. and UK. For fans of Korean food, the joys of such a meal are also what contribute to the country’s excessive disposal of food. All those tiny side dishes (pan-chan) from kim chee to glass noodles to fresh greens – not to mention the leftovers from a large restaurant meal of meat dishes like galbi and bulgogi – add to the headaches Korea experiences with waste management.

READ: How to Recycle in a City Without a Program

Overall, Korea has an efficient waste diversion system. Residents and businesses must buy specially labeled garbage bags that are available for purchase everywhere. The less you throw away, the less you spend. Nevertheless, food waste has increased dramatically in Korea as the country has experienced a long economic boom, and therefore the government is taking much stronger measures.

During 2012, the 50 million Koreans will create up to 170,000 tons of food waste daily, or about 350 grams (over 12 ounces) per person per day. The costs are high: The Korean government has estimated that the annual loss of economic value exceeds $1.5 billion. The annual disposal cost for food waste alone in Korea is more than $600 million a year and rising.

Using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, the food waste bin calculates the fee based on the weight of the container, which is then debited from the user's public transportation card. Photo: Leon Kaye

For years, food waste was treated at sewage plants, which then discharged the resulting grey water out into the sea. And that grey water is not in the country’s long term interests for a country and cuisine that boasts plentiful seafood and seaweed – not to mention the suburb coastline surrounding the country. So, a huge shift is in order beginning in 2013.

Public service announcements have long exhorted Koreans to be more conscious about recycling and waste diversion, but in a country with little landfill space, the Korean government has decided to take more drastic measures. And with the old ways of treating waste disappearing a little over a year from now, Korea’s education ministry is tasked to push for a minimum 20 percent reduction in food waste. Technology will have a strong role.

SK Telecom, Korea’s largest wireless carrier, has designed food waste bins with equipment that will weigh food waste to the nearest gram. Using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, the bins will then calculate the disposal fee based on the exact weight, which will then be debited from the user’s public transportation card or will be processed for payment on a linked credit card.

READ: RFID Bins are the New Recycling Police

As demonstrated at an RFID trade show I attended in Seoul last month, the process is relatively simple. The user taps the bin’s card reader with his or her assigned card. The disposal lid opens immediately, and allows the user to toss in the table scraps from last night’s dinner. The cover closes, weighs the food waste, and informs the user immediately of the total weight and subsequent fee. The responsibility for collection, transport and treatment of food waste then falls on the company contracted to empty
those bins.

This next step in food waste is remarkable considering how strongly Koreans have embraced recycling. Koreans have to buy four different types of garbage bags depending on the waste they buy and neighbors will rat out neighbors if anyone is straying from following the rules. Stacks of cardboard on street corners eagerly wait pickup every morning, and reminders in Korean that say “Don’t waste wastes!” are emblazoned on garbage bins.

But landfill space is disappearing, and at the same time, Korea is reinventing itself as an exporter of green technology. These RFID waste bins symbolize both changes occurring in the Far East.

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