Waste Management

Even taking the trash out in Korea is a far different experience than you get back home. Lindsay and I have been breaking the rules for almost a year now. Only now have we been set straight. It wasn’t because anyone told us our error, it was from a year of observation. Some of our foreign friends also cleared up where we were going wrong. We should have Googled it, apparently we should have been fined a hefty sum.

That we were doing something wrong finally occured to me when I caught one of our neighbors rearranging our trash. He was taking out the plastic egg containers and putting them with other recyclables. I was also seeing white trash bags with a green logo on the side that looked different from our black plastic grocery bags. I also found it odd that sometimes our bag of trash would be the only one not to be picked up. Eventually, though, it would disappear.

Here’s how it works as I understand it.

Regular trash: Pick up trash bags at your local grocery store near the cash register. They must be from the area you live in. They come in rolls of about 10 and depending on their size (5L, 10L, 20L or 50L) they can cost up to $10. This pays for the service. Dump all of your non-recyclable and non-food items in this bag to the point you cannot fit anymore. Tape the top together as to fit as much in as you can. If you tie the top your neighbors will think you are wasting valuable space. One of our few English speaking neighbors told us as much.

Recycling: We have been putting all of our plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass out on the curb in old grocery bags. Someone picks it up. I know cardboard is picked up by old retired Koreans who take it to places for money. You can see some old Koreans hauling around lots of cardboard on the back of their bikes, scooters or even ox-carts. Lindsay and I passed a husband and wife hauling two large ox-carts into on-coming traffic. Allegedly, all of this hardwork pays next to nothing. A huge ox-cart of cardboard might earn these folks $10-$15, most of these people only make $5 a day.

Compost: This is probably my favorite part of Korean waste management and the last one Lindsay and I mastered. With this you must buy a special bucket and a sticker to put on the bucket to get your food waste picked up. You can do this at your local market. Without the sticker you get your bucket confiscated by the compost people. Lindsay and I found this out the hard way, but didn’t understand why our bucket was gone until much later.

I haven’t quite figured out what happens to everything once it is picked up. I like to think the trash gets disposed of properly, the recyclables get recycled and the compost goes on someone’s farm. One of these days, I am going to find that out. Until then I have to wonder after reading the story about how lots of Korean garbage made its way to Japan’s shores in February.

I do know that Korea being the size that it is appears much more mindful of its waste management. However, at the same time there is a lot of litter. Public trashcans viturally don’t exist so many Koreans litter without thinking about it. But I have found, especially from the neighbor rifling through our trash, the way they dispose their household’s trash matters.