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In South Korea, An Innovative Push to Cut Back on Food Waste

In the second in an e360 video series, filmmaker Karim Chrobog travels to Seoul, South Korea, which has implemented a high-tech initiative that has dramatically reduced its food waste. Seoul’s efforts could serve as a model for how a major city can recycle discarded food and keep it out of landfills.

Food waste is a global problem, with the United Nations estimating that a third of the food produced worldwide winds up spoiled, rotting in fields, or being thrown away. That amounts to 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually, a profligacy that carries major environmental, economic, and human costs.

In the second of a two-part series, “Wasted,” we present an e360 video that looks at how South Korea is taking extraordinary steps to deal with its food waste. The video, by filmmaker Karim Chrobog, focuses on Seoul, the sprawling South Korean capital of more than 10 million people, which has ramped up efforts to slash the amount of food being thrown away.

As the video shows, Seoul has introduced innovative, high-tech programs that require residents to deposit their food waste in bins, where the amount of food they toss out is weighed by household using a key-card system. Dispose of too much food and you are charged a fee by municipal officials.

From apartment buildings to giant hotel kitchens, leftover food in Seoul is picked up and taken to sorting facilities, where it is crushed and dried for animal feed or fertilizer, or burned to generate electricity. Trial districts in Seoul have succeeded in reducing household food waste by 30 percent and restaurant food waste by 40 percent. Such programs are now underway in 90 localities nationwide. The goal is not only to drastically curtail food waste, but also to process or incinerate all of South Korea’s remaining leftover food, thus keeping it out of landfills where it would decay and emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Underlying these measures is a frugal society that has been transformed in the past few decades from a hardscrabble nation to a prosperous one. As Seoul residents explain in the video, the kind of waste often found in the United States is alien to many Koreans. That’s why Seoul’s residents have embraced measures that most Americans would find highly intrusive, but that Koreans see as a way of furthering the common good.

Watch the first video in this series.