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Closing the loop on waste

Nature Conference VIP meeting: (seated left) Minister Lim Hyesook, Ministry of Science and ICT; (seated right) Yong Sik Ok.© Korea University

The rising crisis of global plastic pollution has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal protective equipment (PPE), single-use face masks, and increased take-away and home delivery packaging during 2020 more than doubled the 400 million metric tonnes produced globally in 2019.

PPE waste during COVID-19 overwhelmed waste management programmes, which resorted to incineration and landfill to deal with potentially contaminated plastics. “Approximately 1.56 billion face masks, or roughly 5.66 million metric tonnes of plastic, ended up in oceans worldwide in 2020,” said Yong Sik Ok, global research director, and a professor at Korea University.

This was the backdrop of the Nature Conference on Waste Management and Valorization for a Sustainable Future jointly organised by Korea University, APRU Sustainable Waste Management, Nature Electronics, Nature Nanotechnology, and Nature Sustainability, and sponsored by the International ESG Association and LG Energy Solution – a global leader in advanced battery technology.

More than 1,640 people from 97 countries, including the chief editors of Nature Electronics, Nature Nanotechnology, and Nature Sustainability, experts from academic institutions, industry, government, and green groups, gathered virtually, or in person, at LG Science Park in Seoul, from 26 to 28 October 2021. They discussed the development and implementation of sustainable waste management strategies to recover economic benefits and valuable materials from the waste stream, forecast to reach 3.4 billion metric tonnes annually by 2050.

Yong Sik Ok, global research director of Korea University, opened the conference.© Korea University

Chaired by Ok, a Web of Science Highly Cited Researcher (HCR) since 2018 and director of the Korea Biochar Research Center, the three-day event saw presentations on sustainable waste management, microplastics in the environment, electronic waste and the circular economy, remediation and reuse of agricultural and food waste, biomass valorization, and governmental policy on waste management and valorization, as well as a session in which participants met the editors.

“It was especially interesting to learn about waste research priorities and development by local, regional and international institutions, research centres and policy-makers,” said Jay Hyuk Rhee, the chair of the local organizing committee, a professor at Korea University’s Business School, and director of its ESG Research Center.

Moving to a circular economy

By 2050, urban areas will be home to 68% of the world’s population, increasing the urgency to transform flows of food, energy, water, and waste systems towards circular models.

A staggering one-third of edible food crops, 1.3 billion metric tonnes, is lost or wasted each year. “There are real synergies between nutrient recovery and climate change mitigation,” said Johannes Lehmann, a professor at the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University. He notes that value can be recovered by reusing agricultural and food waste in usable products such as biochar, achieving both biosequestration of carbon and improved soil quality, while reducing the waste burden.

Onsite attendees at the conference attend a presentation.© Korea University

“Initial interest in biochar is to use it to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; however, recent developments are seeing biochar being applied in engineering, and health care and life sciences, some of those applications have large potentials for rapid commercialization.” said Ok.

Other approaches aim to recover high-value nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which flow through food to excreta. While new technologies such as liquid-phase adsorption and dry-phase gas adsorption nutrient recovery make this possible, policy and consumer buy-in are the main challenge.

Food waste biorefineries use a range of technologies, including pyrolysis and microbial fermentation to produce fuels, nutrients and materials. Other value reclamation from food waste includes its use as animal feed, as fertilizer for urban crops, and even the use of waste ethanol in meat substitutes.

These innovative solutions combine with landfill and leachate systems, waste-to-energy facilities, and other commercial systems to provide a range of strategies for waste management to address plastic waste, electronic waste, and food and agricultural waste – while delivering economic and social value.

Governance and sustainability

Appropriately, the final session of the event discussed governmental policy around waste management and valorization, with participants highlighting the need for strategic goals that can deliver strong policy and legislation.

A poster session was held at the LG Science Park.© Korea University

In many cases, legislation still needs to catch up with the science. “Plastic pollution is not yet adequately regulated by law. There are many types of plastic pollution that people are not aware of yet,” says Ok. “We aim to develop this kind of standard and make solid government regulations for future generations by appropriately incorporating the E in ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) scoring.”


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