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South Korea’s road to “digesting” kitchen waste

  Garbage is actually a fairly new historical concept. In the 19th century, New York was dirty, but most of the waste at that time was leftovers that could be reused. Leftover roasts from Sunday can be turned into diced meat on Monday, and leftover bread from Monday can be turned into bread pudding on Wednesday. Free-roaming pigs can be seen on the streets, and the leaves or radish heads thrown by people will become their Chinese food. Swill Children go door-to-door to collect leftovers and sell them to farmers as fertilizer or animal feed. Bones can be made into glue, and poured oil can be made into candles. Disposable packaging was largely non-existent in those days.
  In the 19th century, New York’s population doubled almost every decade. As the population grew, the New York government began dumping waste it could not handle into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1895, retired military officer George Walling became New York’s sanitation commissioner and pushed for a series of changes, including the introduction of separate kitchen waste and ash. After the outbreak of World War I, due to labor shortages and material shortages, Wolin’s sorting and recycling policy also became a thing of the past. In 1918, the New York government began dumping garbage into the Atlantic again, while at the same time sending some of it to landfills.
  Over the past century, we have mastered all kinds of advanced technologies, but we have not made much progress in dealing with waste. We do manage to separate paper waste and plastic waste, but the way we deal with organic waste such as kitchen waste and yard waste has not changed much. You must know that organic waste accounts for 1/3 of the total waste in New York, and 95% of the organic waste ends up in landfills.
  Organic waste in landfills not only emits an unpleasant odor, it also has a bad impact on the climate. We stress the importance of recycling all day long, but organic waste is left out. Remember that recycling organic waste can be far more important than recycling plastic, metal or paper. Composting converts organic waste into humus, which makes soil more fertile and enhances its carbon-capturing capacity. Conversely, when organic waste is transported to landfills, the decomposing organic matter releases methane due to a lack of oxygen, exacerbating the greenhouse effect. In the long term, methane is 56 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. U.S. landfills release the largest amount of greenhouse gases in the world, totaling the equivalent of 37 million cars a year.

  Recycling organic waste is much more important than recycling plastic, metal or paper.

  My house is not far from Times Square. There is a restaurant and a butcher shop nearby. Both sides of the street are used for parking. There is no place to put trash cans. bags, some with expired Caesar rolls and rotten fruit. One day, as I passed by the low wall, I startled a mouse, which quickly slipped into a nearby sewer. To be honest, I’m used to this scenario.
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  On a foggy morning in early October 2019, I took a flight to Seoul, South Korea. According to the weather forecast, Typhoon “Mina” is likely to make landfall on the south coast of the peninsula the next day. 95% of kitchen waste in South Korea is recycled, but just 25 years ago, the concept of “recycling” basically did not exist in South Korea. In the 1990s, South Korea rapidly advanced its industrialization, and a large number of rural people migrated to the cities, and the garbage piles on the edges of the cities also piled up. People from poor families would go to the rubbish heap to pick up plastic and metal to sell for money. Kitchen waste has turned the garbage heap into a petri dish for diseases. The garbage heap emits a foul odor, and many people who pick up garbage are infected with diseases.
  ”Someone will lie on the road and stop garbage trucks from taking garbage to the landfill. Things like this make the government realize it can’t go on like this,” said Kim Mei-hwa, director of the NGO “Korea Zero Waste Movement Network”. The organization’s office, located on the 12th floor of a modern office building, is small, and there are several pairs of slippers at the entrance of the office. Ms. Kim, 57, was wearing a blue and white striped shirt. She pulled out two folding wooden chairs from under the small table in the middle of the office. A young lady brought us three cups of buckwheat tea. Although this office sparrow is small and complete, it reminds me of cabins on cruise ships.
  Ms. Jin was a college student in the 1980s, majoring in nutrition and food culture. She also participated in the women’s equal rights movement that year. In 1997, the “Korean Zero Waste Movement Network”, which was born out of 31 NGOs, was established. “Our main job is to lobby the government to introduce relevant policies and regulations.” Ms. Jin said, “We also have many projects designed for the public, mainly to awaken everyone’s awareness of environmental protection.” In 2018, Seoul banned the use of plastic bags. The introduction of regulations is inseparable from the efforts of the organization.
  Today’s Seoul is full of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers, but when Ms. Kim was a child, most of Seoul was farmland. She recalled: “After the Korean War, there was no problem of food waste at all. At that time, everyone could not eat enough, and even if there was any leftovers, they were fed to pigs and cattle.”
  In 1995, South Korea introduced new regulations to replace the original flat tax. Citizens do not have to pay for throwing recyclable garbage, but they do pay for throwing other garbage, and the fee charged depends on the size and number of garbage bags. In 2006, South Korea introduced regulations making it illegal to throw kitchen waste into landfills or garbage dumps. Since the introduction of these policies and regulations, the amount of kitchen waste per capita in South Korea has decreased by 0.75 pounds per day, equivalent to the weight of a Big Mac and a serving of French fries. South Korean officials say the economic gains from these measures over the years are estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
  Seoul citizens can buy designated biodegradable plastic bags for kitchen waste, and then throw the kitchen waste into the automatic collection container. These containers are generally arranged in the parking lot of the community. The collection container will automatically weigh the kitchen waste and charge by kilograms. When I visited the Zero Energy building, an energy-efficient demonstration apartment in Seoul, a slender woman showed me how the smart storage container works. The shape of the container is similar to that of a washing and drying machine, and there are user guides in Korean and English on the machine. She took out a small card, a bit like a supermarket loyalty card. She shook the card in front of the swipe area, the lid on the top of the container slowly opened, she then threw the trash in, the red light showed the weight of the trash, and then the lid closed automatically. On average, each household in Seoul pays about $6 per month for kitchen waste recycling.
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  Seoul recycles 13,000 tons of kitchen waste every day, 30% of which is made into compost, 60% into animal feed, and 10% into biofuel. “Foreigners often ask me: ‘How does South Korea do this?'” Ms Kim said. Some attribute this to sophisticated technology, such as bins that can be weighed, devices that track composting, and radio frequency identification cards that ensure users pay by weight. “Technology is of course important,” Ms. Kim told me, “but there is another key point, I don’t think the government can directly come forward. There needs to be a bridge between the government and the people, and organizations such as the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network play this function. ” A kitchen waste treatment station is not built to be built, in part because nearby residents worry that the treatment station will become a source of odor and disease like a landfill. “We’d go door-to-door and tell everyone that it’s completely safe. I used to be yelled at,” Ms. Kim laughed. “However, people’s perceptions have slowly changed. People think it’s normal now. . In recent years, we have mainly held lectures in some community activity centers, or carried out publicity in densely crowded places.” She added: “The work in the rich areas and foreign settlements is the most difficult to carry out.”

  Li Ensu is the founder of the NGO “Awon Urban Agriculture Network”. At 57, he’s a slender, energetic optimist. He said: “When I wake up every day, I start thinking about how to develop urban agriculture. When I go to bed at night, I also dream about urban agriculture.” He is a typical city dweller who moved to Seoul with his parents when he was a child. When he was a child, his father was in very bad health and could not work. The family relied on his mother to go to the street to set up a stall to maintain a living. He now lives in Seoul’s Nowon district, known for its quality schools and mostly middle-class residents.
  Mr. Li’s past job was to install electrical wiring in apartment buildings, often running to the roof and basement. “I found out at the time that a lot of space was not used,” he said. “What a pity!” He later moved into a small house with his family, and later, he bought a new property, and now he As a landlord, he can basically live on the monthly rent, so he can devote himself to urban agriculture in Seoul. “There is a question from the university. I may be a bit like a professor in this field now.” He smiled and patted his chest, “I suggested growing mushrooms in the basement.” Come grow lettuce, cabbage, peppers, peas and flowers. Organic waste collection containers convert kitchen waste into compost, which can then be shipped to urban farms. In some cases, the container and farm may be in the same community. Over the past decade, Seoul’s urban farms have grown from 66 to more than 2,000.
  I then visited the basement of a high-rise building. On the side of the stairs leading to the basement, there were pictures of four kinds of mushrooms, namely Shiitake mushroom, golden oyster mushroom, antler mushroom and Hericium erinaceus, each looking more peculiar than the other. I went down and ran into members of the building’s Urban Farm Committee, mostly older women. They showed me around the basement room. Metal supports can be seen in each room, with piping systems for irrigation. There is a cylinder on the stand, which is filled with compost, and the antler mushrooms can be seen on the top of the cylinder. The interior of the room was damp and cool, and the air could smell earth. The vibe throughout the basement feels like a mix between a sci-fi world and a nightclub.
  On a table in the basement are many pots of mature deer antler mushrooms, each covered with a layer of cellophane. They gave me and my translator Lucia two pots. That day happened to be the day before the Korean Open Sky Festival. A lady told me that I can make tea with antler mushrooms, and I can add some red dates if I want to make it sweeter.
  Afterwards, Mr. Li showed me the composting system he built on top of a building that also houses his tiny office. He transformed the entire rooftop into a sky garden, with marigolds, pumpkins, mint and other plants, in addition to a jujube tree. The nutrients in the garden are provided by compost. In addition, he planted “green drapery” climbing vines in the building’s parking lot. A large cylinder can be seen under the eaves, fixed to a metal rod that can be rotated, a bit like a player fixed to the crossbar of a table football. This design makes ventilation of the compost extremely convenient. He opened the lid of the cylinder, and inside was a dark mixture that smelled a bit like detergent.
  It takes weeks to months for organic waste to become compost, during which billions of microbes feed on carbon and nitrogen in organic matter, with dry brown organic matter providing carbon and green organic matter providing nitrogen. Microorganisms live in it and need oxygen, which is generally provided by stirring the organic matter. Without enough oxygen, the compost will smell like rotten eggs; with too much oxygen, the compost will smell like ammonia. However, in the right proportions, compost can smell fresh and earthy.
  Mr Li dumped a small bucket of kitchen waste into the cylinder and sprinkled some wood chips on it to provide more carbon. Then, he picked up an old detergent bottle, which contained a brown liquid, which was microbes. He poured some into the cylinder, closed the lid, and pushed the cylinder around the metal rod a few times. “Okay,” he said. After this set of operations is completed, we go to drink bubble tea.
  Between interviews, I made a phone call to my family. My six-year-old son exclaimed to me, “They’re great at composting—go home! Don’t forget to bring me toys!” The way people compost is much more traditional. People will pick up horse manure on the street with buckets and sprinkle it in the garden after picking it up. She said we are now complicating simple things.
| The food waste dilemma |

  Seoul’s urban agriculture is in full swing, with 500,000 people enthusiastic about it, but even so, the compost produced in Seoul is still not used. “We have piles of compost.” Ms. Jin shook her head helplessly. “There is too much kitchen waste.” In the summer of 2019, the practice of using leftovers as animal feed was stopped. The solution that people are proposing now is to reduce the price of compost or to improve the quality of compost. Today’s compost generally contains excessive sodium content, and the way to improve the quality is to use compost mixed with other fertilizers. At the same time, the Korean Ministry of Environment also supports the construction of more biogas facilities to digest more kitchen waste.
  Ms. Jin said the only cure is to try to reduce kitchen waste. “There are too many side dishes,” she said. Side dishes are an iconic feature of Korean food culture. The average annual amount of kitchen waste in South Korea is 285 pounds. Americans are not known for saving food, but the average person in the United States is between 210 and 250 pounds. We may think that there is not much value in trying to recycle kitchen waste, but from another perspective, it is quite scary if more than 200 pounds of kitchen waste are behind everyone.
  In the evening, Lucia and I met with Ahn Sang-hyun, the owner of Mr. Ahn’s Rice Wine House, and he showed us how his restaurant is dealing with food waste. Mr. An Rice Wine House is located in the downtown area. It is a Michelin restaurant. The most famous is the bar and barbecue in the store.
  Mr. An is 37 years old, slender and dressed in black. He first took us to see the small buckets of kitchen waste in the restaurant, and someone will come to take away the kitchen waste later. “The history of Korean restaurant culture is very short,” he said. Of course there were restaurants in the past, but not restaurant culture. In 1986, South Korea hosted the Asian Games, and in 1988, South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics, and restaurants sprang up like mushrooms after a rain. Their target, of course, was foreign tourists. During that period, South Korea’s cities expanded rapidly and modernized quickly, and it didn’t take long for locals to become regulars at restaurants. “At that time, Korean restaurants pursued the word ‘rich’ to reflect the development and achievements of our economy.” Mr. An said. Today’s Korean consumers go to traditional Korean restaurants and have developed the habit of enjoying free side dishes. He said: “So many small dishes are actually decorations, and most of them end up in the trash can.”
  In the 1990s, the government put forward a number of initiatives to reduce food waste, including “Disc Day”. However, if you really want to reduce food waste, you need to change people’s perception of big meals. Some restaurants believe that traditional Korean food is accompanied by side dishes, while others believe that this so-called tradition is actually a modern invention. Mr Ann’s is one of a small number of restaurants that now charge for side dishes. “We charge a fair fee, but all we provide are top-quality side dishes, and customers are happy to eat such side dishes.” He smiled, “Of course customers were not happy at first, they thought the restaurant was too greedy. However, after five years of precipitation , the customer has accepted this change.” During the
  meal, Lucia said that there is actually an easier way to reduce waste, that is to make waste very poor, or to make not waste very bad Cool too. She gave me an example. In order to reduce the sales of bottled water, Seoul put a lot of effort into promoting tap water. The city government specially named the tap water in Seoul: “Ali Water”. This word has a refreshing meaning in Korean. In addition, the ancient name of the Han River that crosses Seoul is called “Ali Water”.
  The waiter served delicious food with abalone and smoked pork with leafy greens. It was raining heavily outside, and Typhoon “Mina” had already submerged parts of South Korea’s south coast, but when we got to Seoul, the typhoon was running out of power, and what we saw was just the usual pouring rain. That meal, we ate everything.

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