The dispute, which could prompt a nationwide garbage crisis, began earlier this month as privately-run companies demanded an increase in service fees from the ward offices, arguing that food waste disposal has become more expensive due to the law that came into effect on Jan.1, which bans discharging unpurified waste water from food waste into the ocean.
Domestic garbage disposers are demanding that the cost of food waste disposal be raised to at least 120,000 won (US$112) per ton from around 70,000 won at present, saying that dumping waste at sea was entirely prohibited from this year by the so-called "London Dumping Convention."
But financially strapped local governments are opposed to a steep cost increase, with most of them vowing not to raise the charge beyond 90,000 won.
Amid the possibility of a nationwide garbage crisis, a report showed Tuesday that the central government has been negligent, though it already expected in 2007 that a dispute between local governments and food waste management companies over service fees may break out in the future.
According to the report drawn up by the Ministry of Environment in December 2007, the autonomous district governments were already advised to increase the disposal charge fees in phases in response to a new law that banned dumping unpurified waste water into the ocean. The law was not enforced until Jan. 1 this year.
The district government authorities refused to pay more for the garbage disposal, citing the budget shortage. Citizens in several districts of Seoul then experienced nasty odors and piles of plastic bags containing rotting food waste littering the streets this month.
The Environment Ministry belatedly intervened to settle the matter between the two parties but failed, raising concerns over a massive nationwide "waste chaos" as the firms warned over delayed pickups.
The current price range for handling one ton of food waste is between 70,000 won (US$66) and 90,000 won, but the firms are asking the district offices to pay 127,000 won for the service.
According to the 2007 report, the ministry also pointed out the need to increase the service fees to at least 90,000 won per ton from the fees of 55,000-80,000 won. The report argued an additional cost between 25,000 and 30,000 won was necessary when disposing waste water on the land instead of in the ocean.
The ministry also suggested in November 2010 that the district governments increase the fees.
Despite the previous recommendations and warnings, the recent delayed talks are out of the government's boundaries, as Environment Ministry officials claim that managing the food waste is entirely handled by the district governments.
"Unlike electricity rates, the cost of handling food waste is entirely determined by an ordinance of each district government," a ministry official said, adding that the central government does not have any right to forcibly intervene in the matter.
The official also said the Environment Ministry expected the dispute to some extent but partly blamed the district governments over failing to fully secure the budget.
Meanwhile, the Seoul Metropolitan Government agrees that disposing food waste should be entirely handled by the ward offices. They further argue that they do not have the right to intervene as a mediator.