|A man walks by a big pile of collected waste at a trash center in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Tuesday. / Yonhap|
By Kim Se-jeong
The recent waste management crisis in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province is adding pressure to Korea's recycling industry.
The crisis took place Monday when 48 recycling companies stopped collecting from their clients, mostly apartment complexes.
The main reason was China which recently banned 24 items for waste import, including plastic bottles, containers and mixed papers, from around the world starting January this year, in a move to protect its environment.
According to Greenpeace, China had imported 56 percent of the world's waste.
Although the crisis in Seoul seems over for now, the issue hasn't been resolved for good and that pressures the companies.
"Korea's recycling industry should now find an alternative way to deal with waste and stay profitable," said Hong Su-yeol from the Korea Federation for Environmental Movements, an NGO.
Recycling companies have profited by selling plastic bags and bottles, papers and plastic foam to China.
Each item had a different process before being shipped out.
Plastic bags were washed first. Only the clean ones were pressed into a solid fuel form then exported.
Plastic bottles were cleaned off and chopped into tiny pieces before being shipped _ the bottles are divided into different groups depending on their quality, and the second- and third-best-quality goods are usually sold to China. "There is domestic demand for high-quality plastic bags and plastic bottle exports were hit the hardest by China's recent move," Hong said.
Plastic foam is melted into a block first before being shipped out of Korea.
Not all goods brought in the same money.
Paper was among the most lucrative items, bringing the companies the highest profits. Plastic bags were on the other end, but the companies still processed and sold them because the profits from paper could cover the costs associated with processing plastic goods.
"China's ban disturbed the established business model, de-motivating the companies to process less lucrative items," Hong said.
No accurate figure is available on how much waste Korean companies have exported to China.
The crisis is also affecting trash collectors, especially elderly men and women, who are at the bottom of the waste management chain.
For them, waste collecting is their living and they feel the impact greatly.
"I used to receive between 120 won and 130 won per kilogram," a 70-year-old collector was quoted as saying by Edaily, an online news outlet. "But now, I get only 50 won per kilogram."
On Monday, the Ministry of Environment promised financial help to the recycling companies to make up for their losses but this isn't going to solve the problem for good.
Indeed, the crisis rekindled a debate on whether it's right to leave the waste management industry in the hands of the private sector.
"I believe this service should be handled by the government, not by private companies because they only work for profits," said an official from Mapo-gu Office in western Seoul.