An insight on Circular economy in South Korea

After the industrial revolution, our economy and our environment has undergone tremendous changes. Consequently, we are facing challenges that drive us towards rethinking our ways of action. In this, developing circular economy provides a solution. This article presents a view on how South Korea is developing towards circular economy.

Authors: Seongreal Yun and Susanna Vanhamäki

Definition of circular economy

For a long time, our economy has followed a linear economy model, which means producing a product and throwing it away after use. Linear economy is also referred to as “take-make-use-dispose” (Lieder 2016). The last step is disposal, in other words, the product becomes waste. One of the traditional ways of handling waste has been landfilling. Landfilling has a direct impact on the environment as it contaminates the soil and e.g. toxic materials from the waste are absorbed to the ground water and pollute it.

Circular economy is a regenerative system were resource input and waste, as well as emissions and energy leakage are minimized by aiming towards closed material loops  (Yuan et al. 2006). Therefore, circular economy produces remarkably less waste than linear economy. The products can be restorative or regenerative thus the whole economy is able to be regenerative (Lieder 2016). If simplified, the “dispose” phase in linear economy would be replaced by “take” in circular economy. Eventually circular economy aims to remove non-recyclable waste and recycle the waste as a raw material. To develop circular economy long-lasting design, maintenance, reuse and recycling should be the basis (Ghisellini et al. 2016).

Circular economy in South Korea

Many countries are aiming to develop circular economy. According to OECD, South Korea had the second highest recycling rate country in OECD countries in 2013 (McCarthy 2016). Furthermore, the Korean ministry of environment (2017) has announced that it would enact the principle of resource circulation from 1.1.2018. According to the ministry, the resource circulation law includes parts like ‘circulation resource recognition’, ‘resource circulation performance management’, ‘cycle availability evaluation’ and ‘waste disposal fee’. It contains policies to reduce waste in all process like production, distribution, consumption and disposal of products and to promote recycling.

‘Resource circulation performance management’ will be enforced to plants that discharge designated waste over 100 tons or discharge other waste over 1,000 tons. It sets a customized goal for each plant for evaluating the circulation of materials and how much the plant needs to decrease waste. If a producer makes products which is hard to be recycled, ‘cycle availability evaluation’ would be applied to the situation. The policy requires the producer to reduce a material which cannot be recycled or make the product easier to recycle. An evaluation plan has to be made every three years continuously. If a plant is not making any improvement the situation will be revealed on internet. If a municipality or a producer landfill/incinerate waste, they have to pay ‘waste disposal fee’ which is 0.01-0.02 €/kg depending on the type of waste. Waste which is not harmful to the environment and is traded for a fee will be affirmed as a ‘circulation resource recognition’ if it satisfies standard regulations. Affirmed plants will be examined constantly if they fulfil the standard or not. (Korea ministry of environment 2017)

A Korean good practice in recycling

Repaper is a Korean company, which design and develop paper cups (Repaper 2018). Repaper invented a new paper cup which can be recycled in 2018. According to the Repaper website (2018), generally a paper cup isn’t biodegradable because it is coated with polyethylene which is plastic. Therefore, it can’t be recycled as paper or cardboard, nor composted. Paper cups cause a huge amount of non-recyclable waste. Repaper has developed a technology to coat the cup without plastic. This new paper cup has received several patents in e.g. South Korea, U.S.A and Europe. It is the world’s first food container made of paper to get a UL ECVP 2485, which is an Environmental Claim Validation Procedure for Recyclability of Paper-Based Products. It also has got a certification of DIN CERTCO which means it is compostable. In addition to the cup, the technology can be applied to the other disposable products. (Repaper 2018)

The innovative material in the cup is acrylate. Acrylate has hydrophobicity in normal circumstances, which can prevent water absorption to the paper. The coating can entirely dissociate and it has been proved that the cup can be recycled. The advantage of this cup is that it is also able to be used in microwave or oven. The cup can be recycled either as a paper or as a compostable product. (Lee 2018)


Even if the recycling rate in South Korea is high, it doesn’t mean that the Koreans live in a circular economy. To develop towards circular economy, South Korea should consider the concept in a holistic way. This includes developing circular design of products e.g. reducing the use of plastic and use more bio-degradable and bio-based products. Consumers are more and more interested in the types of materials than before and they are trying to find new eco-friendly products to use. The biodegradable paper cup of Repaper is a good example on the development. New similar innovations can be made to reach more circular solutions.


Ghisellini, P & Cialani, C & Ulgiati, S. 2016. A review on circular economy: the expected transition to a balanced interplay of environmental and economic systems. Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol.114(15), 11-32. [Cited 30 Oct 2018]. Available at:

Korea ministry of environment. 2017. Enforcement of the resource recycling law. [Cited 12 Oct 2018]. In Korean. Available at:

Lee, O.S. 2018. Repaper got credit for recyclable paper cup in Europe. Hankyung. [Cited 31 Oct 2018]. In Korean. Available at:

Lieder, M. 2016. Towards circular economy implementation: a comprehensive review in context of manufacturing industry. Cleaner Production. Vol.115, 36-51. [Cited 6 Nov 2018]. Available at:

McCarthy, N. 2016. The Countries Winning the Recycling Race. Forbes. [Cited 7 Nov 2018]. Available at:

Repaper. 2018. rePAPER. [Cited 31 Oct 2018]. Available at:

Yuan, Z., Bi, J. & Moriguichi, Y. 2006. The circular economy: a new development strategy in China. Journal of Industrial Ecology. Vol.10 (1–2), 4-8. [Cited 6 Nov 2018]. Available at:


Seongreal Yun is an exchange student in environmental technology at LAMK.

Susanna Vanhamäki is working as an RDI Specialist and is the Project Manager in the BIOREGIO project at LAMK.

Illustration: (CC0)

Published 30.11.2018

 Reference to this publication

Yun, S. & Vanhamäki, S. 2018. An insight on Circular economy in South Korea. LAMK Pro. [Cited and date of citation]. Available at:


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