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 March 05, 2020
How South Korea is composting its way to sustainability

 Trash is new. During the nineteenth century, New York was dirty but much of its garbage consisted of leftovers and scraps and other items to reuse. Sunday's roast became Monday's hash; Monday's bread became Wednesday's bread pudding. Pigs roamed the streets, eating old lettuce and radish tops. "Swill children" went from house to house, collecting food scraps that they sold to farmers as fertilizer and animal feed. Bones became glue. Old grease was turned into tallow candles, or mixed with ashes to make soap. Disposable packaging was almost nonexistent.

In nearly every decade of the nineteenth century, the city's population doubled. New York began to dump its excess into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1895, George Waring, a former military officer, became sanitation commissioner. "Colonel Waring's broom . . . saved more lives than a squad of doctors," the social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis wrote, of the man who put sanitation workers in white suits. Waring made New York households and businesses separate out food waste and ashes; he diverted horse manure for use as fertilizer. Food waste was turned into soap, grease, or compost, or carted to pig farms in New Jersey. Some of the ash became cinder blocks. Some went for expanding the footprint of Rikers Island. Three years after his appointment, Waring died, of yellow fever. His sorting program continued until the First World War, when it was abandoned because of labor and material shortages. By 1918, the city was again dumping waste into the ocean. Or depositing it in landfills.

The story of New York's garbage hasn't changed as much in the past century as you might imagine, given that we now have the technology to 3-D-print a baby Yoda, or to run a car on old vegetable oil. Paper and plastic are separated, but recycling of organics---food waste, yard waste, pretty much anything that rots---remains voluntary, even though such material makes up about a third of New York's trash. All but five per cent of the city's organic waste goes to landfills.

Organic waste doesn't just stink when it's sent to landfills; it becomes a climate poison. Yes, we've been schooled again and again in the importance of recycling---by friends, by pious enemies, even by "wall-e." But the recycling of organics is arguably more important than that of plastics, metal, or paper. Composting transforms raw organic waste into a humus-like substance that enriches soil and enhances carbon capture. In landfills, starved of oxygen, decomposing organics release methane, a greenhouse gas whose warming effects, in the long run, are fifty-six times those of CO2. The United States has greater landfill emissions than any other country, the equivalent of thirty-seven million cars on the road each year.

Last April, the New York State legislature enacted laws requiring large businesses and institutions to recycle their food waste, but New York City is exempt from the new rules. In 2013, when Michael Bloomberg was in his final year as mayor of New York, he instituted an organics-recycling program, which officials said could become mandatory in a few years. Bill de Blasio, who was the public advocate at the time, supported that vision, but as mayor he has failed to fund it.

I live not far from Times Square, near a food-cart-storage facility, a family-run butcher shop, and a La Quinta hotel; one of the lower floors of my building houses a catering business. Since the sides of the street are reserved exclusively for cars, there's no room for dumpsters. Instead, each night a low wall of piled garbage bags appears, as if left by malign elves. Sometimes there are bags of kaiser rolls and tired fruit. A caramel-colored goo oozes onto the sidewalk. Walking by the trash embankment the other evening, I startled one of our neighborhood rats, which sped across the curb and down a sewer drain.

All of which I find, to be honest, totally normal.

Ilanded in Seoul, South Korea, on a hazy morning in early October, the day before Typhoon Mitag was expected to hit the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. Today, South Korea recycles ninety-five per cent of its food waste, but twenty-five years ago almost nothing was recycled. In the nineteen-nineties, following the country's rapid industrialization and the movement of its people from rural areas to the cities, the trash dumps at the cities' edges overflowed. Poor families lived near the dumps; many of them picked through the garbage for plastics and metals to sell. Food scraps, an incidental petri dish for disease, made the dumps foul, sickening the garbage pickers.

"We had people lying down in the road in front of the garbage trucks to prevent more being brought to the landfills," Kim Mi-Hwa, the head of the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, told me. "The government saw that it had to do something."

The K.Z.W.M.N.'s office is about the size of a California closet. It's on the twelfth floor of a modern office tower, the Gwanghwamun Platinum Building, down the street from shops that offer hourly rentals of hanbok, the bright-colored traditional garment worn for ceremonies. I arrived with Lucia Lee, my interpreter. We set our shoes among a small crowd of slippers near the door. Kim, a youthful fifty-seven-year-old woman dressed in a blue-and-white striped button-up, pulled folding wooden chairs out from under a small central table. A young woman brought the three of us ceramic mugs of buckwheat tea. The office had the efficiency of a ship's cabin.

Kim's activism dates back to the nineteen-eighties, when she studied nutrition and food culture at university. She became involved in the pro-democracy student movements, and was a leader campaigning for equal rights for women. K.Z.W.M.N. was formed, in 1997, from a network of thirty-one grassroots organizations. "Our primary work is to advocate for change in government policies, for laws," Kim said. "We also have a lot of programs aimed at educating the public." K.Z.W.M.N. was instrumental in advancing Seoul's ban on plastic bags, which went into effect at the end of 2018.

During Kim's childhood, the city that is now a landscape of high-rises and skyscrapers was largely farmland. "After the Korean War, food waste was not a problem---people were starving," she said. "We took our food scraps outside and fed them to the cows and pigs."

In 1995, South Korea replaced its flat tax for waste disposal with a new system. Recycling materials were picked up free of charge, but for all other trash the city imposed a fee, which was calculated by measuring the size and number of bags. By 2006, it was illegal to send food waste to landfills and dumps; citizens were required to separate it out. The new waste policies were supported with grants to the then nascent recycling industry. These measures have led to a decrease in food waste, per person, of about three-quarters of a pound a day---the weight of a Big Mac and fries, or a couple of grapefruits. The country estimates the economic benefit of these policies to be, over the years, in the billions of dollars.

Residents of Seoul can buy designated biodegradable bags for their food scraps, which are disposed of in automated bins, usually situated in an apartment building's parking area. The bins weigh and charge per kilogram of organic waste. At the Energy Zero House, a model apartment complex in Seoul, a slim woman wearing dark clothes demonstrated how the "smart" composting bin worked. The bin resembled an industrial washer-dryer with a cheerful teal top, and had instructions for use in both Korean and English. She waved a small card, which looked like my grocery-store points card, in front of a scanner. The lid opened in a slow, smooth, and slightly uncanny fashion. In went the waste. A weight registered in red L.E.D. Then the lid lowered, with similar robotic indifference. Nearby was a separate cannister for used cooking oil. A tidy latticed structure covered the area, like a bus stop. For a Seoul family, the cost of food-scrap recycling averages around six dollars a month.

The thirteen thousand tons of food waste produced daily in South Korea now become one of three things: compost (thirty per cent), animal feed (sixty per cent), or biofuel (ten per cent). "People from other countries ask me very often, 'How did South Korea achieve this success?' " Kim said. Sometimes it is attributed to the fancy technology that weighs and tracks the compost, and to the R.F.I.D. chips used in some municipalities to insure that households pay in proportion to the amount of waste they produce. "That is important," she told me. "But also I say the government shouldn't act directly. There needs to be an intermediary between the government and the people. Groups like us. That can explain back and forth. People don't want to hear it straight from the government." Setting up waste-processing sites was difficult, in part because there were fears that such sites would become sources of stink or disease, like the landfills. "We went door to door to talk to residents. We would bring people in for a tour of the food-waste facility. We would educate people about how it was healthy. I've been shouted at a lot," Kim said, laughing. "But things change. People are used to it now. These days, we focus on offering seminars at local centers, or wherever people gather." She added, "We have the most difficulty in wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods with foreigners."

My interpreter, Lucia Lee, was twenty-six years old, "but in Korean I'm twenty-seven," she said. She told me that the nine months of gestation are included in one's age. Before becoming an interpreter, Lucia had worked at a hospital reading pathology slides, a job she chose because her sister had died of cancer. She found the work discouraging: "You aren't really able to help people." She began to travel, for months at a time, which surprised her friends, because she had always been frugal, not even buying coffee when they met. Living abroad, she soon learned other languages, including English, and decided to go to school in order to work as an interpreter. "My parents come from a very conservative area outside of Seoul," she told me. "In my family they have a scholarship, but it's only for boys." By "my family," she meant an extended group of relations involving some two thousand people. She paid for her schooling herself.

On our way to meet Lee Eun-Su, the founder of the Nowon Urban Farming Network, an organization that has a hundred and thirty members, Lucia told me that she had loved reading up on composting---she wanted to make sure that she would be familiar with any specialized vocabulary. Being environmentally conscious is "popular" among young people, she said. "When I visited Taiwan, I saw drinks being served with stainless-steel straws in a restaurant." The Taiwanese government had placed limitations on the use of plastic straws. "I thought the straws were 'cool,' so I purchased one when I got back to Korea." She smiled. She said that Seoul is now also imposing limits on plastic straws. For her birthday, she bought gifts for her friends---reusable water bottles. At the end of our subway ride, she showed me where the tickets were recycled.

Lee Eun-Su, a slim, cheerful, and energetic fifty-five-year-old, told me that he "wakes up thinking about urban farming and goes to sleep to dream about urban farming." He is very much a city person. His parents moved to Seoul from the countryside when he was young. "It was the best decision they made in their lives," he said. He comes from a family of four children. His father was too ill to work, and his mother made money selling things in the street. The Nowon district, where Lee lives, is a middle-class neighborhood known for its good schools.

Lee used to work installing cable in apartment buildings. He found himself in basements and on roofs. "That was when I saw all this unused space," he said. "A waste!" He moved into a small apartment with his family, and now makes a modest living as a landlord, so that he can devote himself to promoting urban farming throughout Seoul. "It's like a university, and I get to be a professor," he said. He tapped his chest and grinned. "I was the one who proposed growing mushrooms in the basements," he added. Sunnier urban-farm spaces grow lettuces, cabbages, peppers, peas, and flowers. Many of the organics-recycling bins in Seoul have the capacity to transform waste into compost, which can then be distributed to urban farms, sometimes in the same apartment complex. In the past decade, the number of such farms in Seoul has increased from sixty-six to more than two thousand.

In a concrete high-rise bordered by a covered highway, we headed into the basement by ducking beneath a staircase lined with pictures of four varieties of mushroom. Each fungus looked spookier than the next: the shiitake, the golden oyster, the deer horn, the lion's mane.

Gathered in the basement were members of the building's Urban Farming Committee. They were mostly older women, faces brightened with lipstick. They led us around their projects, small rooms lit by bluish lights. Cylinders of gauze-wrapped compost sat on metal racks; from the cylinders emerged what looked like sepia alien hands: deer-horn mushrooms. The rooms were humid and cool, and smelled like loam. A delicate tubular watering system wove throughout the metal racks. The effect was part sci-fi, part night club.

On a table in an adjacent space, a crowd of full-grown deer-horn mushrooms, potted and wrapped in cellophane, might have been cousins to Christmas poinsettias. We were each given a pot. It was the day before the Korean holiday known as Gaecheonjeol, or National Foundation Day. (The holiday commemorates the founding myth of the Korean people, which involves a bear and a tiger that both wanted to be human. Only the bear was patient enough.) One of the women explained that the mushrooms are often used to make a tea that is sometimes sweetened with dates.

Later, Lee showed us the composting system he had set up in a building where he keeps a tiny, crowded office. He has a lot of uses for compost: he has transformed the entire roof area---and a platform above it, near the cable and the water system---into a garden, where he grows marigolds, squash, mint, a date tree, and more. Lee has also made a "green curtain," a trellis of various climbing vines, above the building's parking area. Under an eave, a large barrel had been set up on a rotating metal stand, like a Foosball figure on a pole; this makes it easy to turn the compost, to aerate it. Lee unscrewed the lid of the barrel, revealing a dark mixture inside that smelled slightly of cleaning product.

In the course of weeks or months, billions of microorganisms feed on the carbon and nitrogen in the composting mixture. Dry and brown organic matter provides carbon; green matter provides nitrogen. As the microorganisms process the mixture, they need oxygen, which is usually generated by stirring. Not enough oxygen, and the compost will smell like rotten eggs; too much nitrogen, and the compost will smell like ammonia; a good ratio of elements, and the compost will simply smell like fresh earth.

Lee deposited a small bucket of food scraps into the barrel, sprinkling wood chips (for more carbon) on top. He then poured in a brown liquid from an old detergent bottle---microorganisms. He restored the lid and rotated the barrel a few times. "That's it," he said. Then we went out for bubble tea.

During a brief break, I called home. My six-year-old shouted into the phone, "So they're good at composting---come home now! And bring Pokémon souvenirs!" In my next chat across the globe, my mom said that, when she was a kid, in Tel Aviv, composting was done the old-fashioned way: people went into the street with buckets, gathered horse dung, and spread it in their gardens. She said that we make simple things complicated these days. She said they had bedbugs when she was a kid, too, and it wasn't a big deal; they just took care of it.

Antonio Reynoso, the chair of the sanitation committee of the New York City Council, told me, "I got my start as an environmental-justice advocate, and even I thought of composting as, like, this nice niche thing you might do in a garden." Reynoso is thirty-six. He grew up on the south side of Williamsburg, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Until recently, his neighborhood received forty per cent of the city's trash. "Trash goes to predominantly black and brown neighborhoods," he said. We were in his small office, near City Hall. On a wall hung three maps: of New York's bike paths, Brooklyn Public Library branch locations, and District Thirty-four, which Reynoso represents. Reynoso was first exposed to trash activism in 1998, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to put two more incinerators in his neighborhood, after the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island. Hispanic activists working in alliance with the Hasidic Jewish community helped quash the plan.

In New York, a million tons of organic waste are deposited in landfills each year. "Yet trash is always on the back burner of climate activism," Reynoso said, pointing out that trash wasn't even part of the Green New Deal until July, 2019, when Representative Ilhan Omar added the Zero Waste Act. Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a program of "Zero Waste," promising to reduce landfill dumping by ninety per cent by 2030, but, in a recent press conference, seven years later, he said both that this is "an urgent, urgent goal" and that "I think what has happened here is that, you know, we have to look at the whole thing from scratch and come back with a plan that will get us there by 2030." In 2018, de Blasio neglected to fund expansion of the organics-recycling program. The 2020 budget proposed by his administration for the New York City Department of Sanitation's waste-prevention, reuse, and recycling programs was nine per cent lower than it was for 2019.

Reynoso is working to get mandatory organics recycling passed by the City Council before the end of the year. He believes that he has the support and the votes to get this done. "Some things should be worked out through public discourse, and some things are just a given," he said. "Organics is one of those things. On environmental justice, you have to be willing to spend political capital."

The city's organics-recycling program has so far diverted only a tiny fraction of waste from landfills. Curbside pickup is available for three and a half million New Yorkers, but only a small number take advantage of it. The city's sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, who grew up and lives in Park Slope, insists that there is enthusiasm for the program. "That some people will haul their food waste half a mile to a drop-off at the farmers' market tells you something about their commitment," she told me. I asked if she thought many people were aware of the connection between food waste and climate change. "Not really," she said. "Not even in Park Slope"---a famously liberal neighborhood, which has had a coöperative organic grocery store since 1973.

Mandatory organics recycling could save money. Sanitation trucks would have waste to pick up throughout the city, as opposed to gathering bits and pieces from participating households. (Organics collection currently averages between one and two tons per truck shift, a fraction of the capacity of ten to twelve tons.) There's even a small amount of money to be made from selling compost, though for now much of it is given away in the interest of generating enthusiasm and awareness. And the amount of waste that New York sends to landfills---some of which are as far away as South Carolina, all of which are in poor areas---would be reduced.

The D.S.N.Y. spent four hundred and twenty-two million dollars last year to send trash to landfills---about a third of its budget. Making organics recycling mandatory was estimated in a 2016 report by the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscally conservative think tank, to cost somewhere between a hundred and seventy-seven million and two hundred and fifty-one million dollars a year. City Hall had no counter-estimate to offer, but those figures include the onetime costs of updating trucks. "Climate justice is not cheap," Reynoso said. But, he added, "it is the right thing to do." The city's current contracts with composting and biogas facilities can handle a modest two hundred and fifty tons a day. However, Reynoso said, "we could pass mandatory organics recycling and make the goes-into-effect date be tomorrow."

New Yorkers would need to learn a bit, too. Councilman Reynoso's district participates in the voluntary organics-recycling program, as does mine. About a third of New Yorkers can sign up to have their organic waste collected from their homes, in brown bins, but many people are unaware of the program. Even in participating districts, only about ten per cent of organic matter is diverted from landfills. I asked a middle-aged man listening to music if he knew what a brown bin nearby was for. "Bones?"

One of Reynoso's priorities is a Save-As-You-Throw program, similar to the one in Seoul. (Initially, it was called Pay-As-You-Throw.) The proposal, which Commissioner Garcia is supportive of, would make pickup of all recycling---including organics---free, while charging for regular trash, beyond a fixed limit, by the bag. A similar model has worked well in other American cities. San Francisco launched mandatory organics recycling in 2009, and now diverts eighty per cent of food waste; a comparable model in Seattle has led to about sixty per cent of total waste being recycled. New York's housing stock is distinct from that of those cities---it's arguably easier to enforce mandatory recycling for single-family homes and smaller buildings---but it isn't that different from Seoul's.

Fresh Kills, on Staten Island, used to house a landfill composed of more than two thousand acres; now it is a site for recycling, with a large section devoted to composting yard and food waste. On a January day, the scent of Christmas filled the air---it was the first day of grinding up the season's trees, which, after the strings of lights were manually removed, would become compost. That compost would eventually be spread in the city's parks, distributed through giveaways, and purchased by landscapers for fourteen dollars per cubic yard. "We process the trees differently, because the needles are so acidic; that's why you never see anything growing at the base of a pine tree," Mike LeBlanc told me. LeBlanc is a facilities manager for Denali Water Solutions, which runs the site. Organic waste was arranged in nine windrows---long, wide strips that resemble burial mounds---which are monitored for levels of carbon and nitrogen, and also for temperature. Microorganisms generate heat, which speeds the transformation from waste to the "black gold" of suitable compost. At about a hundred and sixty degrees, harmful bacteria and weed seeds are destroyed.

"Right now, it's a four-to-five-month process," Scott Morrell, the operation manager, explained. Interspersed among the windrows were truck-size machines that looked like toys: a bright-orange Doppstadt Inventhor ground up trees, an emerald-green Komptech Multistar sorted waste by size, and a white-and-yellow scarab turned and aerated the windrows with its inner spokes. Pointing to a thin brick tower in the distance, LeBlanc said, "We use that smokestack off the Con Ed plant to see which way the wind is blowing, because we try not to turn the piles when it's going to send the smell inland." Even a perfectly maintained compost pile starts out as many buckets of organic waste.

The only food waste handled at the Fresh Kills site comes from Staten Island itself---the borough, having been the city's principal landfill for more than forty years, has had enough of taking waste from the rest of the city. Seagulls, starlings, and sparrows crowded the windrows, which are full of nourishment. "Let's show you the Tiger," LeBlanc said, turning away from the windrows and toward a huge white canopy, several stories high. Inside was the Tiger Depack---a royal-blue machine with a white tiger painted on the side. It's the size of a dumpster, but louder and prettier, with a price tag of about a million dollars. Through a centrifuge, the machine separates waste from the bags that it comes in. The bags and food wrappers, which are less dense than the organics, are spun to the periphery of the internal processor, like lint in a dryer. The Tiger then homogenizes the organic material by dampening and grinding it into bits of mash, thereby hastening decomposition.

The machine's final output comes through one of two spouts. The nonorganics spout was blowing out mostly wispy bits of plastic. From the other spout came a slurry of what looked like dirty oatmeal.

The machine soon jammed. An employee wearing yellow work pants hopped up onto the Tiger, opening a side door to reveal several compressed lumps of biodegradable school-lunch trays. "One reason we do a pilot program with the schools is because education is the most important part of this," Morrell said. "We're trying to get kids interested. New York City is eight and a half million people set in their ways." He went on, "You and I grew up throwing things in a landfill. Then the five-cent deposit came out---for glass, for cans. It changed the mind-set." The school board toured the facility and learned that scraping food off the trays before throwing them out---which seems polite---gums up the machines. It's easier if the trays are damp with food.

LeBlanc and Morrell were fond of the Tiger, almost as if it were a pet. "And it came with two Italians," LeBlanc said. The Tiger is made by an Italian company, which sent workers over to install the machine. "We thought they'd be interested in great food, but they were, like, 'We love the place with the girl with the red hair!' It was Wendy's."

Even with the boom in urban farming in Seoul, where half a million residents are involved, to some extent, more compost is being made than can be used. "We have piles like this," Kim Mi-Hwa said, raising a hand to the height of her shoulder. She shook her head. "The food is too much." Last summer, using food scraps for animal feed was paused. "African swine virus," she said. "Until they understand what is causing the outbreak, that part is on hold." Current proposals aim to either lower the price of compost being sold or to improve its quality---it tends to be too high in sodium---by mixing it with other fertilizers. The Ministry of Environment is also supporting the construction of more biogas production facilities, to process more waste. Kim stressed that the only profound solution would be to create less food waste altogether. "Too much banchan," she said, referring to the meze-like dishes that are a signature of a Korean meal. "Too much." Koreans generate, on average, two hundred and eighty-five pounds of food waste per person, per year. Americans---not known for their sparseness---average between two hundred and ten and two hundred and fifty pounds. It can be difficult to experience one's own efforts at recycling as meaningful, but it's easy and horrifying to picture being followed around by one's own personal many-tonned monster of trash.

Lucia and I had plans that evening to meet Ahn Sang Hyun, the proprietor of Mr. Ahn's Makgeolli bistro, who was going to show us how his business handled its food scraps. We found the Michelin-rated restaurant on a noisy street known for its craft bars and barbecue.

Ahn is thirty-seven and slim, and was dressed in dark clothing. "Restaurant culture in Korea is a short story," he said, after showing us the small bucket of waste that had been set out for collection. "First, the Japanese invaded. Then there was the Korean War. Then a dictator. Then another dictator." There were restaurants, but there was no restaurant culture. In 1986, Seoul hosted the Asian Games, and in 1988 it hosted the Summer Olympics. Restaurants popped up to serve foreigners, and then stuck around for the locals in a suddenly modern, expanding city. "The idea with Korean restaurants then was abundance---it was about demonstrating growth and economic achievement," Ahn said. A traditional Korean restaurant today is expected to offer many dishes of banchan free. "Those banchan dishes are for show. Most of it goes to the garbage."

Earlier efforts to reduce food waste included such government campaigns as "No Left-Overs Day," in the nineteen-nineties, but a real shift in food waste would mean changing the notion of what constitutes a great meal. Some restaurants describe the traditional Korean meal as a three-, five-, seven-, nine-, or twelve-cheop meal, referring to the number of banchan. Others counter that thinking of the Korean meal that way is a modern invention. A small group of restaurateurs, including Ahn, thought, "We'll charge for banchan, but serve banchan of a quality that people will actually eat," Ahn told me. "Well, customers were unhappy, and said restaurants were being greedy." He laughed. "But in the past five years that sentiment has changed."

Over dinner, Lucia told me that she was planning a birthday party for her boyfriend and had been trying to decide what to serve. He was a member of the Jain religion, from India, which avoids harming all living creatures. There were many foods that he didn't eat, including meat, seafood, and eggs. (Some Jains also don't eat fermented foods, because too many microorganisms die in the fermentation process; some avoid foods grown underground, like potatoes.) "It's very difficult for him to find foods here in Korea," Lucia said.

Her boyfriend, an engineer, had come to Korea for a job at Samsung. He was working on a special refrigerator that can sense what food is inside it, and suggest recipes. Lucia shook her head. She thought there were simpler ways to reduce food waste---making wasting uncool, or making not wasting cool. When the government decided to reduce the purchase of bottled water, tap water was "branded" by neighborhood; the tap water in Seoul is arisu, a word that has connotations of being refreshing, she explained. It's also an ancient name for the Han River, which runs through the city.

Delicious food arrived. Abalone. A plate of smoked pork, with greens. We looked at the dessert menu, but Lucia told me that she wasn't eating chocolate. It was something she was doing with her boyfriend, because, as part of the religious festival called Paryushana, some Jains choose to give up a particular food for a year. This isn't because the item is immoral or unhealthy. "It's more like: you might give up cabbage," she said. "So that for one year the cabbage could live without fear." She smiled. It was raining outside. Typhoon Mitag had flooded the southern coast, but in Seoul it had dissipated into an ordinary rainstorm. There were no leftovers.