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North Korea ramps up recycling amid sanctions and pandemic

PYONGYANG: North Korea has highlighted a huge emphasis on recycling as a way to turn waste into treasure and establish a more self-sufficient economy.

Imports of items like plastic from China are being restricted by anti-pandemic border barriers.

Although the scale of recycling is unknown and some experts are skeptical of the effort’s long-term effectiveness, there has been a clear policy pivot, with a focus on recycling now infiltrating most aspects of daily life.

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According to the sources, in the month of May state-run television KRT aired a short film titled “Treasure I Found,” which depicted a factory worker who originally objected to his wife collecting plastic debris, but changes his mind when he realises he can use the recycled material to build a fence at his workplace.

According to state media agencies KRT and KCNA, organisations are now compelled by law to recycle unwanted and unused material including plastic, cloth, paper, glass, scrap metal, rubber, spent oil, and industrial waste, following the lead of “Treasure I Found.”

Residents can drop off recyclables like empty bottles at government-run recycling centres or exchange stores.

According to the sources, there are 70 exchange stores in Pyongyang’s capital where citizens may get consumer products like notebooks or shoes in exchange for their recyclable rubbish.

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While environmental factors are cited, analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s call for developing self-sufficiency is driving the recycling push. North Korea’s economy has been battered by international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear programme, as well as strict border closures to ward off the coronavirus.

“In the face of sanctions, North Korea has begun to emphasise the necessity of recycling as an essential decision for the country’s long-term economic survival. However, due to COVID-19 the need became much more pressing in 2020”, Dr. Choi Eun-ju, a research fellow at Seoul’s Sejong Institute said.

According to Chinese customs data, North Korea’s trade with China dropped by more than 80% last year after Pyongyang closed its borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

North Korea appears to recycle just the most basic products, as there appears to be little high-tech electronic waste to reuse. Unless new resources are added, the quality of recycled items will deteriorate with time, according to Hong Su-yoel, ecologist and principal researcher at Resource Recycling Consulting in Seoul.

According to state media, Pyongyang’s recycling centres have produced 70,000 construction bricks, 8,000 tonnes (8818.49 tonnes) of fertiliser, and hundreds of kilogrammes of aluminium from municipal waste, including coal cinders, though detailed data on the total amount of recycled goods has not been released.

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