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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

Koreans to Pay for Food Waste With Swipe Cards

words and photo by Leon Kaye

Andong, Korea is a city with a population about the size of metropolitan Eau Claire. Like Eau Claire, Andong is full of trees, has its share of history, and its local art scene more than holds its own.

And like many municipalities of its size, the question of what to do with waste is a burden for citizens and local leaders. Recycling has long been the norm in Andong and throughout Korea. But food waste continues to pose several problems, especially since water used to process food and agriculture scraps may no longer be disposed into the sea. The statistics are staggering, because eating out is a huge part of Korean culture. Students and those living on lower incomes often find that eating out costs just as much as buying groceries, and office workers are compelled to spend a few evenings a week out dining and drinking with their colleagues. The result is that this country of 50 million generates over 170,000 tons of food waste a day, or 12 ounces per person.

To that end, Korea has introduced a pay-as-you-go food waste disposal system to tackle food waste. The Korean government contracted SK Telecom, one of the country’s leading telecommunications companies, to design new waste bins. The bins look like the overnight book drops that are in front of your local public library. But these bins, which are over five feet tall, are very high tech. Each bin is installed with a radio identification frequency device (RFID) linked to an internal scale that weighs any leftover food plunked inside.

Residents will have the option to be issued a swipe card or they can select to have their public transportation card tied to their local utility bill. The process is quick. First, the user taps the bin with their chosen card. Next, the lid opens, and the customer tosses in the food, which a scale immediately weighs. The lid then closes, and the charge for the exact amount of food waste to the gram is calculated and then charged to the registered credit card.

In concept, the system is not different from how Koreans dispose trash. For years, Koreans have been required to buy specially labeled garbage bags for their households or businesses. The bags are sold everywhere, from large supermarkets to the corner convenience stores that are on just about every street corner in Korean towns and cities. The bigger the bag and the more consumers throw away, the more they pay. Meanwhile, all neighborhoods and apartment complexes have trash collection centers where cans, glass, and plastic are sorted. Pity the scofflaw who tries to dispose trash in a regular old plastic bag: security guards and nosy neighbors will quickly report the violator to local authorities, who then dish out hefty fines.

For Korea, food waste is both an environmental and fiscal issue. Food waste alone costs the Korean government over US $15 billion a year, and the emissions from agriculture and food waste causes methane emissions, which are up to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The small and crowded country also lacks landfill space, so the swipe bins are an additional mechanism that encourage businesses and consumers to reduce their waste. And at a higher level, this new system is about fairness. After all, if you waste less, you pay less.

Leon Kaye, a journalist based in California, has been to 40 U.S. states and 60 countries. His work is in the UK’s Guardian,,, and he curates, a sustainability blog that is read in 170 countries. You can contact him at

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