Why are Americans So Bad at Recycling?

South Korea is known for having one of the most rigorous recycling systems in the world. I visited South Korea to learn why and how. This way, we, Americans, can learn how.

I visited the Jong-no Cleaning Department located in Seoul, South Korea to interview professionals in terms of South Korea’s recycling system.

eing the only non-European country out of the top five recycling nations, South Korea has a whopping 53.7% recycling rate. Sadly, the US is not one of the top five nations; in fact, we are ranked 17th, running a 35% recycling rate. According to the EPA, only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted out of the 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste in the US. The United States is known for having the highest GDP, a.k.a what defines a country’s economy. How does this make sense? How are we so behind if we have the best functioning economy?

Why so?

Well, one of the reasons is the efficient waste management that took place in the 1970s along with rapid economic growth. Due to the “capacity limit of Nanjido Landfill Site, new waste treatment facilities were required,” the Korean Ministry of Strategy and Finance and KRIHS (Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements) reported in the 2016 publication “Waste Resources Management and Utilization Policies of Korea”. In 1986, the “Waste Control Act” came into play, which further developed the policies, which motivated the initiation of the ‘Recycling Promotion Act’ in 1992. It was designed to promote recycling, regulate single-use products, and cultivate recycling industries. The Korean government implemented laws that encouraged industries to proper recycling from the earlier days. Currently, Korea pursues a “Zero Waste” policy, which helps to utilize waste as a source of resources and minimize waste.

Presently in South Korea, all food waste is charged based on the volume or weight, encouraging people to make less waste if they want to save money. Even the people who aren’t into environmental conservation are willing to make less waste. They charge money for food waste disposal bags in grocery stores so that people can buy bags if they need to make waste. Even the waste that is made usually results in compost, animal feed, or solid fuel. Today, 95% of food waste is recycled in South Korea.

On the other hand, in the United States, people simply put food waste in the food disposers to grind it down and send it to landfills or is even just left to rot in the field.

Not only the laws that were properly set up from the early stages but also the cultural aspects take a huge role. Because of the small land, apartments account for 59% of all homes in South Korea. Compared to houses that take up maximum surface areas for minimum space, apartments offer maximum housing units in limited space. In Korean apartments, there is always a certain area that is made for recycling so that residents can come out of their homes to recycle. Most of them are divided into six categories: food waste, glass bottles, plastic, paper, metal, and styrofoam. They even have a small area for residents to wash their hands afterward, which motivates recycling. “Kyungbee”s, safety guards, are often seen as well to watch over the recycling process.

When I lived in Seoul, Korea, I remember helping my mom out every Thursday to carry down all the cardboard and styrofoam waste down the elevator to sort them out in the recycling center. It was a natural thing to do since everyone thought of recycling as a basic requirement.

Our family was shocked when we first arrived in Michigan when we realized all we had to do was to simply combine all the waste we had and place it outside the house in the bin. Even food waste was so easy to get rid of since all we had to do was press a button to grind it up.

No One is Perfect

I was fortunate enough to visit Korea this summer and interview a few professionals regarding the recycling system. It was true that South Korea has a wonderful waste management program. However, there were aspects of it that seemed to overlap with the US’s recycling system. According to Mun Seok Lee, the head administer of Jong-no Cleaning Department, many cardboard or plastic that came into the recycling centers weren’t often washed properly. He gave an example of how even individual yogurt containers were put in recycling bins without being rinsed, which hardens the process of sanitizing and later getting recycled. It costs additional money to sanitize and clean out the containers in order to recycle them, which is even harder nowadays due to the pandemic. “If the cost of sanitizing and recycling cost more than buying new resources, we would have just to throw it away,” he said.

Above shows the Cleaning Administration Division of Jongno, Seoul.

What’s the Solution?

Global demand for paper and cardboard is expected to grow by 1.2 percent a year; recycling will become crucial in order to meet this demand. The key to solving this would be developing the domestic market. Improving the technology for sorting and sanitizing recycled materials would bring recycled material to the marketplace. Efficient regulations and enforcements from the government would also be necessary in order to limit the disposal from industries.

Can We Make a Difference?

Indeed, one person can’t make a change to the world. However, In order to make a difference, citizens of both countries would have to change the perspectives of recycling. Participating in Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle is the ultimate way to protect the environment. The most efficient way to reduce waste is not to create it in the first place. Making new products requires a lot of resources and energy. Here are some ways you can reduce and reuse.

  • Buy used. Often, used items are less expensive and just as good. From thrift stores to online stores, there are so many options these days!
  • Look for products with less packaging. Less packaging means less money.
  • Borrow or rent items. Frequently used items, like party decorations, can be borrowed easily.
  • Repair products. They won’t be thrown out or replaced easily.
  • Buy reusable over disposable items. Grocery bags, your own silverware, and many more!

From the US, even if it costs extra, getting a recycling bin and participating is a great starting point. To give Michigan as an example,

  • Recycling carts are required unless the location is using an approved recycling dumpster for materials. Recycling carts are managed by Recycle Ann Arbor. DDA carts are managed by the City.
  • Each household will be issued one 64-gallon recycling cart. A 32 or 96-gallon recycling cart can be provided upon request.
  • First cart delivery is free.
  • Additional recycling carts are $50 each.
  • $25 delivery fee or free if picked up.​ Carts must be empty and clean before being traded-in.

Recycling bins only cost around 25 to 50 dollars depending on the size. Considering how much of an influence you can make with this bin, don’t you think it’s worth an investment?

Passionate for environmental and chemical engineering. Writer at The Innovation, Climate Conscious, and Age of Awareness. Love recycling and composting!