HWASEONG, South Korea — At a sprawling recycling plant in this city of farmland and industry, the sound of sustainability is deafening.
The Recycling Management Corporation plant, one of the country’s nerve centers of plastics recycling, runs around the clock, its maze of conveyor belts and sorters producing a din that could rival an airport runway.
Yet places like this recycling plant helped South Korea reach the No. 10 spot in this year’s “Green Future Index” report by the M.I.T. Technology Review. The World Economic Forum has cited the report on its website, listing 10 countries that are models for a greener future.
While attendees gather at the World Economic Forum summit in the bucolic mountains of Switzerland this month, factories like those run by Recycling Management tend to the daily grind of creating a greener planet.
The factories help South Korea meet ambitious sustainability goals, which are reinforced with policies, messaging and enforcement.
South Korea, which is the size of Portugal, but with a population of nearly 52 million — while surrounded by water on three sides and a hostile neighbor to the north — is like much of the rest of the planet: under pressure to better utilize existing resources, and to do so before it is too late.
That sense of urgency, and a United Nations effort to reach an international agreement by 2024 to eliminate plastic waste, may well be on many minds at the Davos summit this year as the ecological fallout from the pandemic becomes clear.
“One of the things the pandemic revealed was a rise in the use of plastic for food deliveries and a sense of safety with extra packaging all over the world,” said Kristin Hughes, the director of resource circularity at the World Economic Forum. “Recycling was put on hold in many countries. It wasn’t deemed as essential.”
Now that the crisis phase of the pandemic has passed, she said, it’s time to switch direction. “We need to move away from the take-use-dispose approach,” she said.
The challenge of consumption and disposal is evident across South Korea. A train ride through this country reveals patches of crammed houses, businesses and farms. There’s little room for landfills. In fact, one of the largest in the country, which absorbs much of the waste from Seoul and its 10 million residents, is expected to be full by 2025.
South Korea is also a major manufacturer, exporting electronics, cars and appliances at breakneck speed, which keeps it hovering in or near the top 10 countries for G.D.P. This has created the need for factories and shipyards, in an already crowded nation that has scant room to accommodate them.
So recycling bins and food waste canisters are ubiquitous, and 32-gallon food-recycling containers line the curbs of Seoul much the way cars pack the roads in the capital’s notorious traffic.
At the Recycling Management factory on a recent afternoon, dozens of workers in protective gear stood alongside jolting conveyor belts, sorting and positioning thousands of plastic bottles and sending them on to their second or third life.
Searing temperatures in rattling machinery removed paper logos, then melted the plastic into small pieces known as PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, chips that were then bundled into 1,540-pound bags to be shipped around the world and repurposed into items such as bottles and synthetic clothing. Two hundred of these massive bags are produced daily (except on Sundays, when the factory is closed), accounting, along with a sister facility in nearby Osan, for 19 percent of South Korea’s total PET bottles recycling output.
“We collect, recycle and repurpose,” said Im Sung-jin, the vice chairman of Recycling Management. “But the bigger picture for me is that we do this because we have an obligation to the planet.”
That notion of responsibility was the focus of the Green Future Index, the second annual ranking of 76 economies “on their progress and commitment toward building a low-carbon future.” It also singled out nine other countries for their efforts at goals like curbing fossil fuel emissions, reaching carbon neutrality or increasing electric car sales.
South Korea was spotlighted specifically for recycling. Its waste management system, known as jongnyangje, calls for food, garbage, recyclables and bulky items to be separated into color-coded bags. The policy is strict, and there are both penalties for noncompliance (up to 1,000,000 Korean won, or about $785) and rewards for those who report violators (up to $235).
“We look at what a country has done but also what will be done, both actual and aspirational,” said Ross O’Brien, who led the research and writing of the Green Future Index, in a phone interview from his home in Hong Kong. “For example, no other country has as many new green patents per billion-dollar G.D.P. than South Korea. Based on that, we believe South Korea is the most productive green innovation economy in the world.”
The report found that Singapore and South Korea were “the world’s best-ranked recycling economies,” as they “routinely expand policy programs to encourage better waste management.”
The emphasis has had an impact: The average Korean citizen now throws out about 1.02 kilograms of household waste daily, about a third of the amount produced in 1991. Its recycling and composting rate is 60 percent, one of the highest in the world, according to the World Bank.
By 2030, South Korea aims to reduce its plastic waste by 50 percent and recycle 70 percent of it. And a nationwide deposit-return policy charging 300 Korean won (about 25 cents) for all disposable coffee cups and other single-use beverage containers — and then reimbursing upon return — takes effect June 10.
As for food waste, the World Economic Forum lauded South Korea as far back as 2019, pointing out that the country recycled 95 percent of its food waste then, up from 2 percent in 1995. Dumping most food into landfills was banned in South Korea in 2005, and compulsory food waste recycling was introduced in 2013 at a cost of about $6 a month for biodegradable bags.
“This induced the public to be more active in waste separation since they had to pay for waste bags in proportion to their disposal,” said Kim Jong-min, the deputy director of the waste-to-energy division of the Ministry of Environment. “Before implementing the policy, food waste obviously created a foul odor and spawned a great amount of leachate in landfills.”
Yet the approach to recycling has been shifting here and in other countries so that it is no longer viewed as solely a consumer responsibility, according to M.I.T.’s findings, which have been echoed by other environmental groups monitoring Asia.
One example is South Korea’s E.P.R. (extended producer responsibility) system for packaging, which began in 2003. The Korea Packaging Recycling Cooperative, a nongovernment agency, monitors and charges fees to thousands of manufacturers.
“Under the E.P.R. scheme, it’s all about the design of the products, as fees that the manufacturers pay vary,” said Ma Jae Jeong, the director of the resource recycling division at the South Korea Ministry of Environment. “The more recyclable the products are, the less the fee. The producer can pay a fee up to 50 percent less for products that have the highest recyclable rating. This gives companies enormous incentive to produce more recyclable products.”
Still, South Korea has fallen short in other areas, such as electricity production.
“What the M.I.T. report highlights is great because South Koreans have a high level of consciousness about climate change, and we don’t have two opposing political sides, such as in the U.S., arguing about its reality,” said Kim Joojin, the managing director and founder of Solutions for Our Climate, a Seoul-based advocacy group. “But, at the same time, South Korea is saddled with an antiquated power sector and is lagging other less wealthy nations. This is often at odds with its global image as a leader in so-called green technology.”
At the World Economic Forum, one session will focus on plastics pollution, following up on a U.N. Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, in March in which 175 countries, including South Korea, agreed to consider a binding resolution to eradicate plastic waste pollution at the end of 2024. The hope, Ms. Hughes said, is that Davos will spotlight the urgent need to produce sustainable practices worldwide.
“It’s this whole idea of ‘take, use, reuse, refill, recycle,’ and how we keep using and reusing,” she said. “We’re looking more and more at resource circularity. We’re not just chucking it all into the landfill any more.”