Plastic Recycling in Korea - Improving Efficiency Through Technology Solutions
Aug 06, 2014

Korea uses a lot of plastic—around 5 million tonnes per year. With Korea’s small size and dense population the disposal of this plastic creates huge logistical issues; there is no space to sweep things under the rug. Yet Korea’s recycling system has gained widespread attention, being featured on the BBC and praised by news sources around the world. The rapid development of Korea’s recycling system in such a short space of time is certainly remarkable. However, technology solutions that promise even more efficiency remain under-utilized by most of the industry. Recently Latitude caught up with representatives from a number of recycling centers, technology manufacturers and associations to find out why.

With a yearly turnover of 18,000 tonnes, Samyang Corporation is the largest PET bottle recycler in Korea. Their PET bottle recycling plant machines operate for 24 hours a day sorting plastic bottles and turning them into flakes that are sold on and used to manufacturer other products like piping, car parts, and even football uniforms for the World Cup. Meanwhile, on the periphery of Seoul, the recycling centers in Suwon, Hwaseong and Yongin are the biggest of a number of centers utilizing automated sorting technology, each recycling around 100 tonnes of municipal waste every single day.

Up until the 1990s, this kind of scene was unheard of in Korea. As the economy rapidly developed, the total amount of waste in Korea increased exponentially, and government waste policy focused only on containment. At its worst Seoul’s main landfill site on Nanji Island grew into a mountain of waste 34 times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. In the mid-90s, Government policy evolved to emphasise waste reduction, implementing a volume-based waste fee system applicable to households, and a waste charge system requiring product manufacturers and importers to pay part of the cost for the disposal of their products. An Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system was introduced in 2003 to extend and develop the waste charge system. Recycling and resource circulation became the government’s new buzzwords. Thanks to these policies waste production was reduced and the recycling rate improved markedly. By 2010, Korea was recycling around 54% of all plastic waste, while 38% was incinerated, and only 8% was landfilled—a huge turn around. While waste disposable is still a big issue, the waste pyramid on Nanji Island is no longer, now an eco-park visited by millions each year.

By looking to the established recycling systems in Europe and Japan for examples, Korea has developed a system that works. Thanks to waste reduction and recycling policies, as well as a general increase in environmental awareness amongst the population at large, both consumers and producers are taking responsibility for their waste. However, there are still cracks in the piping.

Jang Seok Chan, the Head Office Administrator at the newly formed Korea Packaging Recycling Cooperative (KPRC), admits that while the Korean recycling system is successful, it was designed over ten years ago and new technology solutions are needed to help streamline the system. Samyang Corporation’s factory manager, Lee Chee-Uk, also believes that Korea’s plastic recycling system still has a way to go before catching up to some European and Japanese counterparts in terms of the “diversity” of technology used. Even the Ministry of Environment has acknowledged this issue, stating “there have been insufficient efforts deployed in adding higher value to the recycling industry…there exist insufficient incentives to encourage the efforts by obligated producers or recycling business owners to make high-quality recycled products...”

Lee Chee-Uk laments that in every bale of sorted waste PET bottles that Samyang receives roughly 10% is a different material that was not correctly sorted. Thus Samyang has to re-sort the waste, discarding the different plastics and selling them to another company, before the PET recycling can begin. Each colour also requires a different sorting machine, which takes further time and resources. According to Lee, Japan imposes a duty that makes coloured plastic five times more expensive than clear plastic to produce. But in Korea this isn’t the case—stroll down the alcohol aisle of any Korean supermarket and you will see Korean beer and rice wine bottled in plastic of all kinds of colours.

Like Samyang, Korea Recycle System Co., Ltd (KRS) also has to deal with poorly sorted materials. KRS is a RPF (Refuse Plastic Fuel) recycler, taking refuse plastic waste and turning it into compact pieces that are burned as fuel for energy. However, according to KRS President, Lee Sang-Kuk, items like aluminium cans, chopsticks and spoons are commonly found among the RPF waste. KRS is one of the larger RPF recyclers in Korea, as it was established by the Korean Plastic Recycling Association and has acquired sorting technology, which it uses to recycle about 7000 tonnes of household RPF waste per year. But speaking of the market more generally, Lee states that rather than concentrating RPF materials among a handful of companies so that the materials can be dealt with effectively, there another 150 RPF recycling companies scattered around the country, mostly all working on a very small scale.

These examples are representative of a widespread call for technology solutions that can improve the efficiency of Korea’s plastic recycling system. However, the reality is that these solutions already exist. In 2005, Korean company Ionia E&T became the first company in Asia to develop automatic sorting system technology for the treatment of Municipal Recyclable Waste (MRW). This was on the back of funding from the government as part of the government's “21st Century Frontier Research & Development Project.” Ionia E&T’s Environment Business Department Manager, Lee Ho-Ik claims that with a capacity of three tonnes per hour this technology is ten times more efficient than sorting by hand, and has a sorting success rate of over 90%. Ionia E&T’s automatic sorting system is now being utilized by about 30 recycling centers around the country. International companies like Norway’s Titech and France’s Pellanc are also spreading their automated sorting technology in Korea, with Titech machinery now used by around 100 Korean recycling companies. Despite the availability of this technology, however, it is yet to be utilized on a large scale.

If Korean company Ionia E&T and international companies like Titech and Pellanc have the technology, then why is it not being more widely used? Lee Ho-Ik remarked in frustration that the reason lies in the size of the Korean market; there aren't enough large companies that can afford the technology. All of the companies that currently use Ionia E&T’s machinery are government owned recycling centers, set up in big cities and recycling large quantities. Lee claims that there are only 50 or 60 large recycling companies in the whole country, most of which are government owned. In other words, the majority of recycling companies are privately owned and small. The reality is that with just one of Ionia E&T’s machines setting you back USD240,000 (and a complete system installation close to USD500,000), automated recycling technology remains inaccessible to all but a handful of the largest private companies. Ionia E&T's Lee Ho Ik doesn't see the Korean market for their technology solutions growing any bigger in the near future. Faced with the reality that they can only sell machines to two or three companies each year, Ionia E&T are now looking for new markets overseas, and plan to start exporting in earnest next year.

In Korea, a great deal of investment has gone into recycling, the overall plastic recycling rate is comparatively high, and there are some great success stories. But more generally speaking, the recycling system is not set up with improvement in mind, and is thus not as environmentally friendly and effective as it could be. Assuming that the array of material being recycled is not going to be simplified any time soon it would seem that part of the answer lies in sorting technology. While this technology exists, clearly the current structure and, in particular, the small scale of sorting and recycling operations means that change is not being realized. With the current international focus on Korea, and statements about the country’s technological expertise and waste management success, it would seem now is a good time to implement recycling solutions that leave these statements in no doubt.

Photo caption: Korea Plastic Production, Waste, and Disposal in 2010 (Korea Packaging Recycling Cooperative Figures)

Thomas Vink
Latitude Ltd.

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