Trash to 'treasure': N.Korea ramps up recycling

A short film broadcast on state run television shows a clear policy pivot in North Korea as the state pushes the benefits of recycling.

Called "Treasure I Found," it shows a factory worker who initially grumbles about his wife gathering plastic waste; having a change of heart when he finds he can use the recycled material to make a fence at his work - while this state news reader reminds viewers that trash can be treasure.

The scale of the recycling is unclear but it’s a message that’s being pushed hard.

Organizations are now required by a law passed last year to recycle discarded and unused material, while residents can hand in recyclable waste such as empty bottles at state-run recycling centers or exchange shops.

According to local media there are 70 such shops in the capital Pyongyang, where people can trade their recyclable waste for things like notebooks or shoes.

Analysts say the push is driven more by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's call for developing self-sufficiency rather than environmental reasons.

The economy has been battered by international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program, and strict border closures to ward off the coronavirus.

According to Chinese customs data North Korea's trade with China plunged more than 80% last year.

Dr. Choi Eun-Ju is a research fellow at Sejong institute.

"North Korea started to emphasise the importance of recycling as a necessary choice to maintain its economy in the long run amid sanctions. But the necessity became more desperate in 2020 due to COVID-19. In the case of recycling laws or economic laws, it seems like there are definitely provisions and systems to punish people for breaking the laws or for doing something they aren't supposed to."

Some experts are doubtful about how effective it may be in the long-term, warning that over time the quality of recycled products will worsen unless new resources are introduced.

The mood summed up by a plastic goods factory worker on state TV: "We need to stake our fate on recycling. This is the way to survive."

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