Opinion & Analysis

Social impact of waste in South Korea

About 4.4 percent of South Koreans over 65 roam the streets day and night, pulling carts laden with plastic, glass or paper for extra income.

China’s decision to stop importing half the world’s solid waste is having an impact on the elderly poor in South Korea, writes Patrick Flamm.

OPINION: At the beginning of 2018, the People’s Republic of China stopped importing around half of global solid waste for recycling, which is around 50 million tonnes per year. The Chinese government had announced the move months earlier, but it still sent shockwaves around the world. Recycling plastic waste remained uncollected on the streets in the United States and Europe, and waste shipments were hastily redirected to other East Asian nations.

The United Nations Environment Programme expressed the hope that, in the middle of what has been called a “planetary crisis” of plastic pollution, the growing amounts of waste will not just be burned and landfilled in the United States, Europe and Japan. These industrialised, waste-exporting countries should finally come up with more sustainable plastic waste management practices and higher domestic recycling rates. The UK Recycling Association, for example, confirmed that Britain heavily relied on waste exports. It is estimated that the UK shipped around two thirds of its garbage, around 500,000 tonnes per year, to China.

In New Zealand, we are currently exporting 30,000 tonnes of plastic waste every year. The government is now also debating about onshore recycling and a review of the Waste Minimisation Act. Minimising the amount of plastic use and waste, while increasing the recycling capabilities, are definitely the ways forward for waste exporting countries.

However, developing nations have to also improve waste-management practices to prevent negative environmental and health effects, as well as to stop marine pollution.

The most significant impact of the drastic fall in domestic market prices for recycling in South Korea, for especially plastic and paper waste, is on the elderly.

Old man pulling rubbish cart South Korea

The earnings by elderly rubbish collectors in South Korea have taken a hit since the Chinese ban on recycling waste imports.

Health, environmental and social impacts of waste

One of the main reasons for the Chinese ban on “foreign garbage” were the negative environmental and health impacts of waste. The recycled resources – most of it actually domestic waste – have been used as a cheaper alternative to processing raw material domestically, feeding the growing Chinese economy for the last few decades. Unfortunately, plastic debris can not only physically but also chemically harm wildlife, either because the plastic particles themselves are toxic, or because they absorb other pollutants.

Most of the estimated 5 to 13 million tonnes of plastics in our oceans comes from rivers and coastal areas in China and Southeast Asia, ending up in giant plastic gyres in the high seas or even making their way into our food chain.

Also, the influx of unprecedented amounts of waste can potentially overpower the waste management systems and lead to more marine pollution.

There also are little-noticed social impacts. A surprising example can be found in South Korea. A developed, industrialised nation, South Korea exports about 230,000 tonnes of solid waste annually to China. But after the Chinese ban, South Korea is emerging as a major waste importer itself – especially with plastic waste from Japan and the US.

Many South Korean recycling companies are opting to process the higher quality and more lucrative foreign recycling instead of the domestic waste, which has led to plummeting domestic waste prices. In April, residential recycling waste collection activities in many parts of the capital Seoul and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi came to a halt, with garbage piling up. Only after the government agreed to subsidise private recycling companies did collection start happening again. In May, the government further pledged to cut the amount of plastic waste by half, and reduce the recycling rate from 34 percent to 70 percent by 2030.

The most significant impact of the drastic fall in domestic market prices for recycling in South Korea, for especially plastic and paper waste, is on the elderly. 

South Korea has by far the highest relative poverty rates among the elderly in all OECD countries. Many retired South Koreans have no source of income. The pension system was only introduced in 1988 and the basic pension only provides around 230,000 won (NZ$295) per month. The country also has one of the highest suicide rates among the elderly in the OECD, due to loneliness, isolation or a culture of not wanting to be a financial burden on their families. Around 4.4 percent of South Koreans aged over 65 roam the streets day and night, pulling carts laden with collected plastic, glass or paper to earn some extra money. Their revenue, however, has dwindled since the Chinese ban on recycling waste imports. Prices for paper have fallen from around 445 won per kilogram to 110 won and for plastics from 90 won per kilogram to 20 won.

Today in the age of the Anthropocene, plastic objects are deeply entangled with human and non-human life in many ways. Reducing the negative impact of plastic for a more sustainable future is a major challenge for businesses, environmental regulators, and social institutions alike.    

Patrick Flamm is Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

– Asia Media Centre