Communities Field Note


Learning From the Past, and Making a Greener Tomorrow.


Abstract: In just over 50 years, Korea grew from being one of the poorest countries in Asia, to an economic powerhouse that trades around the world. However, this amazing growth was very costly. The environment of Korea has been tragically degraded and the new generation is being left to deal with the consequences. How is the youth of Korea preparing to handle these important issues, and what steps are being taken already?


After World War II, Korea was left broken and in poverty. With an amazing spirit, the entire country soon devoted itself to rebuilding and regaining its strength. Korea did grow, quickly. Korea was an economic marvel that many other countries now look up to for its success.

Paper cup recycling tube in a restaurant

The downside to this sudden and extreme growth in population, industry, agriculture and wealth was that the environment was completely neglected in the meantime. The forests were cut down for paper and construction materials. The rivers were dammed and rerouted for irrigation and transportation. The air was filled with many harmful gasses from industries and automobiles. People quickly learned that this type of impact on the environment couldn’t continue.

Today, Korea is suffering from many problems handed down from this burst of industrialization. The good news is that people are realizing that the health of their environment affects their own health and that if you use everything up, there is nothing to keep your business going in the future.

Koreans are now recycling and reducing waste better than most countries. New laws are changing the way factories can dispose of waste and are keeping the land from being further polluted. People are being educated about how it helps everyone when we care for our environment. I was very happy to find so many positive things going on right now, but there is still a far way to go.

Are there ways or places to recycle in the local community and are they easy for people to access?

Recycling bins seem to be readily available throughout Korea, but their use changes a lot with the location. Almost everywhere you see a general trash can, there is another can for recyclables right next to it. In this way, I feel it is very easy to recycle if you choose to. In public places, you will see trash cans all over the place, but when no one monitors the cans, people tend to toss everything in together. Each of these mixed cans are emptied by someone who will separate the trash before it reaches the landfill.

General trash collection bins. Notice the writing on the bags shows they’re official

I mentioned in a previous article that most Koreans live in very tall apartment buildings. This makes it much easier to collect the trash from many people at one location. Everyone must take their trash to a central collection site within the building premises that has staff and security cameras watching it at all times. This “trash monitor” makes sure that all trash is separated and placed properly into the right bins.

It is mandatory to separate your trash in Korea. If someone improperly dumps trash in the bins, there can be severe consequences. First offences will be verbally corrected and continuous misuse can result in fines of \200,000 to \500,000 Korean won ($200-500 US dollars).

I don’t know why anyone would have any trouble doing the right thing though. They make it very easy. There is a different bag or box for each kind of trash. Each one is labeled general trash, plastic, paper, cans, newspaper, other paper, colored glass, clear glass, florescent lights and food waste. The food waste recycling program is my favorite and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!

What is the public sentiment about the state of the environment, and do young people think they play a role in protecting the environment?

Elementary school students receive a very basic class in environmental education that teaches them about the problems of pollution. However, these classes are very brief and the students are under a lot of pressure to focus on subjects that might help them to get a high paying job instead. Children quickly forget about the class as they get older and have many other stresses to worry about. Because of this, most students aren’t too concerned about the state of the environment. They may know there is a problem and want to fix it, but no one seems to take action. Many people just don’t feel they have the free time needed to fight for change.

Fluorescent tube and battery recycling bins

Only students who are studying the environment learn about these problems and recognize the necessity to change. My roommate happens to be an environmental health science major so he was a very big help in researching this article! He shared some of his thoughts with me. For example, he said that environment of Korea is terrible because the focus was on economic growth over the last 50 or so years. Politicians use only economic policies to win voters and rarely talk about environmental concerns.

He gave me a frightening example of a Samsung factory that released toxins into a natural water supply and a nearby village suffered extremely high cancer rates. The slow but constant exposure to chemical toxins is a major problem for all of Korea, he says. The workers in the factories get the same problems, but they continue to work because they must earn money somehow. 

What innovative solutions do you observe, or hear people talking about?

I have heard about some cities in America that require grocery stores to charge for plastic bags needed at checkout. Personally, I have never seen this. When I found out that this is the policy for all of Korea, I was shocked! They still use an excessive amount of plastic packaging for fruits and other goods, but they are using far fewer bags because of this rule. Each bag may cost only a nickel or a dime, but it adds up and discourages many people from needlessly creating even more plastic waste. I think this is a great idea, but I also think they could charge even more. How much do you think they should charge for plastic bags? Is it fair to charge over a dollar?

Everyone separates materials into these bags

Another great example of reducing waste is right here in my university. In every cafeteria and restaurant around campus there is an impressive system for controlling waste. Reducing trash begins with the way the food is served. Each student gets a washable tray and reusable bowls, plates, cups, chopsticks and spoons. No disposable plastic items are used at all. Some restaurants do have paper drinking cups for hot beverages like coffee, but all the paper cups must be placed in a special trash can to be recycled.

When the student is done eating, it is his or her responsibility to scrape all the remaining food into the food waste container, put any paper cups in the right bin, place chopsticks and spoons into a sink, drop metal cups into a collection basket and set the remaining bowls and plates in front of the dish return window.

Around lunchtime, the cafeteria is extremely busy, but everyone works together very well to get the food, find a place to sit and then get rid of the dishes. Even though it took me a little while to learn the system, I was very impressed by how efficient it is!

Have there been changes to environmental laws lately, or have new systems of solid waste management been introduced in the past five years? 

Ok, this part is really exciting for me! I told you about how the food waste is collected separately from other trash, right? It is actually against the law to mix general trash and food waste! So what do you think they do with all the smelly old banana peels and apple cores? Would you believe me if I told you they could turn it into a flammable gas that is used to heat thousands of homes?

Cardboard bins

They really do! The food is kept in giant tanks under apartment complexes where it ferments and releases a gas called methane. The methane is then collected and used to heat water that is pumped through the building to spread the heat. Even though this is a very expensive system to install, it saves so much electricity and landfill space that it is well worth it!

For homes that don’t have these methane systems, food waste is picked up by the city. Right now, everyone pays the same monthly fee for food waste collection, but a new system will be introduced in July, 2013. After the new law is passed, the city will begin selling dedicated bags for food waste to homes. This is very similar to how general trash collection happens already. Only official trash bags can be used for city collection and the price of the bag includes the price of collection. This way, people only pay for the amount of trash they produce and they are encouraged to reduce their waste as much as possible. The expected cost of each 20 liter food waste bag will be \360 (36 cents). A 20 liter general trash bag currently costs \380 (38cents).

Are there any youth groups, community organizations, NGO or INGOs actively working to address solid waste management issues in your community?

Public trash can with different compartments with different types of trash

In Korea, it is difficult to find funding for NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). Many are supported by corporations that have an interest in their own cause. In addition to this, many individuals feel like they have almost no power to change the system. Despite the frantic work and social lifestyles of Koreans, some of them have begun to speak out for change and created solutions that are improving the situation.

The government of Korea states that tap water is safe to drink, but many people are afraid of claims that the pipes are old and allow heavy metals and bacteria into the water. Most people who use city water will boil it first or buy a home filtration system. This distrust of public water systems and the desire for convenience, leads to heavy use of bottled water.

KOPRA, The Korean PET Recycling Association, creates new methods to recycle and finds new uses for recycled material. They have even begun producing very nice pants, shirts, or even backpacks out of old plastic bottles! They feel that it is very difficult to get people to stop using plastic bottles so we must find new uses for the used bottles and keep them out of landfills that way.

Bins for recycling clothing

One of the most active groups in Korea that focuses on environmental concerns is called GreenKorea. I really suggest you take a look at their English website at They strive to educate people on the benefits of green living, responsible business, and sustainable growth. Their members have fought against several destructive development projects in Korea and succeeded in saving many of the precious, and few remaining, wildlife habitats and sanctuaries. They are more proof that Korea is moving in the right direction and gives me hope that future generations may still enjoy a beautiful and healthy Korea.

Food waste containers that everyone shares

You can recycle used oil here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s