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(Yonhap Feature) Korea turning waste to profit with landfills
By Rick Ruffin
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- From the Google Earth imagery, Sudokwon landfill west of Seoul looks like a golf course. Yes, it's actually a regular golf course under construction, ready to open in May next year.

   The landfill's green satellite image is in stark comparison to Mexico's notorious rubbish-pit Bordo Poniente, or Rio de Janeiro's barren-looking Jardim Gramacho landfill.

   While both Mexico and Brazil claim to possess the world's largest landfill, Sudokwon landfill near Bucheon, an industrial city 30 kilometers west of Seoul, actually clinches the title for South Korea.

   The 5,000-acre landfill handles waste from the 22 million residents of Seoul and areas surrounding it, about 40 percent of the nation's total population. About 1,000 trucks deposit up to 18,000 tons of trash a day at the site.

   But while the garbage at landfills in many places throughout the world merely festers and stinks, in South Korea the government is making concerted efforts to profit from the mess.

Pipes funnel methane gas from buried garbage to a steam powered turbine to make electricity at Sudokwon landfill. (Courtesy of Rick Ruffin)

"Almost 3,000 government officials representing about two dozen countries visit each year, hoping to find an energy solution to their countries' waste problems, based in part on the Korean model," said Park Young-lee, who previously guided a group of visitors through the Dream Park waste processing facility northwest of Incheon.

   According to Park, who now serves as information officer for the SLC, or Sudokwon Landfill Site Management Corp., the company "hopes to schedule several events from the upcoming 2014 Asian Games at the landfill, including golf, horseback riding, swimming, and clay pigeon shooting."

   Landfills are some of the biggest methane producers in the world. Methane is a greenhouse gas that heats up the atmosphere 21 times faster than C02. At present, SLC annually generates about US$30 million worth of electricity from that methane, which is sold to local power plants, according to the company's Web site and brochure.

   On a recent visit to the top of the No. 2 landfill site, Park shook her finger out the window toward an eerie landscape of pipes protruding from the ground.

   "Those are the pipes that channel the methane. They keep growing each year as the landfill gets bigger. Each section is about 3 meters high, and we've added on about eight sections since I've been here, from what I can remember," she said.

   An overview of the total facility reveals a sprawling complex of multi-use facilities on top of millions upon millions of tons of municipal waste and garbage. These include a Sports Park, Green Bio Complex, and an Eco Event Complex. An Eco Culture Complex and Nature Observation Complex are currently in the works. At the Bio Energy Town, poplar trees and rapeseed flowers are planted not only to provide biomass for energy production, but these plants also consume large amounts of carbon dioxide.

   There will also be a limited solar energy production facility at the Natural Energy Town generating 30 megawatts of electricity.

Researchers at Sudokwon landfill fuel a bus with compressed natural gas produced from food waste at a launching ceremony of a refinery facility at the landfill on June 16. (Yonhap file photo)

When the landfill reaches capacity sometime around 2044, Park says the company hopes to have the technology in place to efficiently convert municipal solid waster (MSW) into refuse derived fuel (RDF), therefore not needing so much land. Much of the rest of the waste, including plastic, paper and glass, will hopefully be recycled, she said.

   But not everyone is happy with the Dream Park landfill. Park Jin-young, a reporter for the Incheon Ilbo newspaper said "one can smell Sudokwon from parts of Incheon. The ongoing effort by the government is still not doing enough to address the problems posed by this landfill to the residents of this community."

   While Seoul is looking to technology to find an answer to the modern bane of excessive garbage production, countries in the West and Europe are aiming to simply reduce their levels of waste.

   While the concept of "zero waste" is now taking hold in cities around the globe, including Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco, the Seoul government is currently trying to change attitudes through use of the proverbial carrot, and not the stick.

   "Everything is strictly voluntary at this point," Jeon Won-hyuck of the Korean Ministry of the Environment said. "We try and tell people that recycling and CO2 gas reduction need not cost money, something that Koreans have traditionally seen as a burden on business. But we aren't taxing people or anything in order to achieve our goals. We are trying to realize CO2 gas mitigation and waste reduction through strictly voluntary measures."

   The sign in the bathroom of Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI) offices in Seoul, from where the Dream Park tour started, said, "One tissue can be used three times."

   Meanwhile, the parking lot outside was full of SUVs.

   Through the SLC project alone, the Korean government hopes to save 1.3 million barrels of oil, and reduce CO2 emissions by one million tons by 2013. The Dream Park facility, in turn, will become a giant tourist mecca that will host a myriad of events, overlooking the Kyungin Ara Waterway that will link Incheon with Seoul by ship.

   But this is just the beginning. Korea has grandiose plans for "14 more energy towns such as this," according to Kim Hong-seok, a researcher at KEITI.