Landfill and incineration are like claiming that it is raining after urinating on one’s legs.
3-1. Something so obvious and large is not visible.
There are many cases where the government and companies seem to take the lead in environmental protection but they actually harm the environment. Conveying a false impression or misleading information about eco-friendliness is greenwashing. ‘ESG management’ companies can be translated into ‘turning crisis into opportunities’. It means that eco-friendly management strategies which are not related to profit generation cannot be subject to discussion.
Today, the media may take critical stance against companies as in the case of Namyang Dairy Products. Therefore, companies use a double strategy. They spend money to make ‘good image’ for a company but they manage their company thinking that ‘it’s ok if it is not me’ to stay ahead in the competition.
Coke companies and mobile phone manufacturers, which are the first and second largest contributor to environmental pollution as they consume significant amount of plastics, advertise that they seem to handle all plastic waste in the ocean after making coke bottles and mobile phone cases made of recycled plastics. Most of the ESG management strategies announced by one large and small companies after another seem to improve the corporate images with questionable execution plan. No country is good on a voluntary basis.
The government takes a similar attitude with different extent. Behind the rhetoric that it will contribute to responding to global climate crisis, there is a premise that ‘it will come after growth.’ Most of the policies titled ‘green’ are like burning or burying the problems under the feet so that we cannot see them anymore. Plastics which are incinerated and buried without recycling flow into the ocean and come back to our body.
It was a great shame for Korea when CNN broadcasted a trash mountain in Uiseong. Hundreds of such trash mountains exist across the nation. Something too obvious and large may not be visible. As we have been accustomed to the environment surrounded by plastic waste for a long time, we may not recognize the problem. That is the state of waste treatment and management by us (government, companies and individuals).
3-2. Does it make sense to make birds poop in a designated place?
In the green economy, resources are supposed to be recycled and the amount of recycled resources is supposed to be reduced and recycling speed should be slowed. However, there has never been a political party that puts ecological and anthropological problems of the country on the same line.
Korea, which has the second largest plastic waste generation per person in the world and imports the waste from other countries, should depend on the good minds of plastic waste exporters which try to ban the export of ‘untreated plastic waste’ (Australia will enact the law) for its environment.
As we have not been active in responding to environmental problems considering that environment a stumbling block for growth, the problem has been worse and widespread. So Korea is in a situation to come up with stricter and well-planned measures at the national level compared to other countries, it tries to control the waste issue by establishing laws that are like ‘ordering birds to poop in a designated place’.
There is a significant gap between Korea and countries from which we import plastic waste in terms of waste management system and waste treatment technology. Introducing their acts as it is does not fit our reality and we cannot endure in the environmental war among countries. What we need now is innovation (technology) which should bring about the impact of the Industrial Revolution.
3-3. OECD 7 principles of waste treatment
In general, there are 7 principles proposed by OECD for the management and treatment of waste. That includes principle of prevention, principle of value creation, principle of using the best technology, principle of treatment at source, principle of integrated environmental management and principle of environmentally sustainable development.
The key to waste management policies is to preserve the environment and health of people by minimizing resource collection and waste returned to the nature based on the efficient use of limited resources. Both advanced and developing countries are going through the similar changes in the waste management policy.
In the early stage of waste management, the concept was just ‘cleaning’ the ‘waste. But later, focus was moved from ‘cleaning’ to ‘recycling’ and recently the concept of ‘waste minimization’ is the key in the waste management policy.
Waste minimization is the concept that covers waste prevention, reduction, reuse, recycle and energy recovery and aims to minimize the waste to be processed by burial or incineration.
3-4. ‘Mandatory Pre-treatment Facility’ proposed by congressman Kim Seongwon, a floor leader of the People Power Party.
The first time when the government established the waste management system was when it established Waste Management Act in 1986. It established the waste recycling system for saving resources with the establishment of the Act on the Promotion of Saving and Recycling of Resources in 1992. By establishing Framework Act on Resources Circulation in 2016, it planned to establish the circular economy system.
The gist of the Framework Act on Resources Circulation was treatment should be done after recycling and heat recovery (incineration) to minimize the amount of waste. This led to ‘zero direct burial’ legislative notice in 2021.
In metropolitan area, the shortage of landfill is an urgent issue but there is no clear solution. It is hard to find the site that can replace the metropolitan landfill area. An alternative solution is to incinerate the waste first and bury the remaining ash. However, waste burial and incineration facilities are not welcomed by any community.
If waste is incinerated, the weight and volume reduce by 15 to 20%. Last February, the Ministry of Environment announced a legislative notice on the amendment of Waste Management Act to require burial of only ash after incineration of waste. It will take effect from 2026 in metropolitan area and 2020 in other regions under the principle of responsible disposal at source in the intermediate treatment stage of domestic waste. Each local government needs to come up with measures within this period.
In addition to the policy to ban direct burial of waste, the bill to revise the Act on the Promotion of Saving and Recycling of Resources partially was proposed by congressman Kim Seongwon, a floor leader of the People Power Party in April this year to require the local governments to install and operate waste pre-treatment facilities.
The construction and operation of pre-treatment facilities require significant cost. If waste is incinerated at high temperature, it generates pollutants and ash that contains heavy metal so additional cost is incurred to treat it. If we can recover resources from waste as much as possible and recycle the stabilized remnant as resources again, we can minimize the number of pre-treatment and incineration facilities.
3-5. The size of pre-treatment industry is bigger.
Even though we carefully separate and dispose recyclable plastic waste, more than 80% of them cannot be recycled for reasons of contamination by food or mixture of other non-recyclable materials. So in the process of screening, they are classified as the waste for burial or incineration. Pre-treatment facilities are to recover recyclable resources as much as possible through mechanical treatment such as crushing and screening or biological treatment using aerobic decomposition before the waste is buried or incinerated.
One of the reasons why the waste is crushed in the pre-treatment process before incineration is that small particles or powder has wider area where chemical reaction occurs. Usually, chemical reactions occur on the surface of a substance, the larger the surface area, the more intense the reaction. In Japan, the size of pre-treatment industry is bigger than that of waste treatment industry.
The bill to revise the Act on the Promotion of Saving and Recycling of Resources partially, which was proposed by congressman Kim Seongwon, a floor leader of the People Power Party in 2021 includes the reduction and recycling of waste by recovering recyclable resources efficiently and the expansion of installation and operation of pre-treatment facilities by stipulating the facility installation and operation criteria by the Decree of the Ministry of Environment. With the legislative notice on ‘zero direct burial’ of the Ministry of Environment, the proposed bill by congressman Kim Seongwon intend to reduce the amount of waste and reduce environmental pollution.
3-6. We need to call the fire truck before the entire forest burns down.
“Specific moment’ where it becomes not possible to save either the environment or the humanity is approaching. The way of production and consumption and the way of treating waste are killing us. Among them, the wrong waste treatment method is so huge to the extent that we can bring about a new ecosystem even we correct the waste treatment method alone. Construction of expensive waste treatment facilities and storing the remaining waste on the atmosphere and earth for a long time with incineration and burial are the way to accumulate the threat to the earth and living creatures living on the earth.
Among waste, plastic waste poses the most significant problem. It has been 113 years since the plastic was made and plastics are involved in our life to the extent that it is hard to find products without using plastic. There are many other pollutants that threaten the nature but plastics cause a bigger threat due to its absolute amount. 80% of plastics we discarded are incinerated or buried and after going through food chain, they come back to us.
Burning or burying the plastic waste is just to make it invisible in front of our eyes. It aggravates the problem more widely and permanently. It is like claiming that it is raining after peeing on one’s legs.
If the direction itself is wrong, speed is meaningless. If the policy direction for the treatment of waste including waste plastic is wrong, the faster the policy execution, the harder it is to return to the right track. It is like to add a name to the list of firefighters who will be called to suppress the fire after the entire forest burns down.
3-7. You cannot buy a bottle of wine without paying for the bottle price.
All living creatures on land and in the sea do not have mechanisms to defend themselves against (micro)plastics. The plastics generated by people become microplastic dust and it accumulates in the human body again along the food chain. Humans have evolved to filter most of the dust but our lung is vulnerable to smaller micro-dust.
Plastic waste is the debt humans should repay. The (financial) debt that cannot be repaid by a company or household is regarded as bad loan and can be written off from the book. It is just a number, not the amount kept in the form of material. However, in the world of substance and energy, the debt should not be written off. It should be repaid. If it is not repaid with energy and substances, living creatures in all ecosystems need to pay the price.
However, actual repayment of energy debt should be done at the global level. Neither advanced countries nor underdeveloped countries cannot exercise sovereignty in terms of climate crisis. Even when Japan achieves zero emissions, Japan’s coast will be submerged if other countries do not join the effort.
Accumulating energy debt without repayment means that we are living in a house built on the sand. The problem is that the earth is not likely to wait for humans change. We are consuming our future and the sooner we stop burning the remaining resources, the better for all of us ultimately.
* <City Oil Field, Finding Unicorn Horns> will continue in Part 2-2.