Communities: Seoul’s Interesting System of Waste Management

Seoul’s Interesting System of Waste Management

The beautiful grassy fields of Seoul’s World Cup Park were once piles of rotting trash. For years the island of Nanjido was a garbage wasteland, now it is a beautiful park where families go to spend the day enjoying the summer weather. Come with me and find out how Seoul turned a pile of trash into a gorgeous natural habitat!

Waste is a huge problem in our world today. Not only do we create piles of solid waste like discarded toys, electronics, and packaging, but we also waste enormous amounts of food! South Korea is no different in this regard although in recent years the country has begun to implement policies to reduce the amount of waste the country produces.

South Korea is a country largely focused on innovation, creating new and exciting technologies for their own people as well as people around the world. How many of you have a Samsung or LG smart-phone or know someone who does? You can thank South Korea for these amazing gadgets! After the Korean War, South Korea managed to build itself up from being a relatively poor, war-torn and divided country to a highly developed nation. This growth has come at a cost to the environment. In its rush to develop, South Korea largely ignored the damage that it was causing to both the environment and its own people. On a brighter note, I am happy to inform you that in recent years Korea has worked to preserve the environment for future generations.

A very good example of this effort can be seen in the case of the Nanjido landfill. Up until about the year 2001 Nanjido Island in Seoul used to be a pile of refuse, a trash heap. My professor remembers driving by the dump with her seven year old daughter and seeing the heaps of rubbish burst into flames. There were two piles of trash each measuring about 90 meters tall! In 2003 the Seoul Metropolitan government closed the Nanjido landfill. According to the World Cup Park website they covered it with one meter of dirt and left it. Soon enough nature started to reclaim the landfill.

Now the area is home to the World Cup stadium and four gorgeous parks! At the parks you can see green grass, trees, flowers, animals and of course tons and tons of people out enjoying the beautiful summer weather! There are kids flying kites and couples picnicking all over the green fields! Not only did Seoul turn piles of garbage into gorgeous parks for people to play in, they also turned all of this trash into energy!

When the trash in the landfill decomposes it turns into methane gas. Normally this gas is damaging to the environment since it is one of the greenhouse gases that contributes to the warming of our planet. Seoul uses the methane gas produced by the decomposing trash to power the World Cup Stadium as well as apartment buildings in the area! Soon the gas will also be used to power the nearby Digital Media City complex. I think it is really cool that Seoul has managed to take something so damaging to the environment and make it useful!

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

In Vermont, where I am from, it is mandatory to recycle. Sometimes your neighbors will even call the city on you if they notice you are not recycling properly! You can imagine how excited I was to find out that it is also mandatory to recycle in South Korea! If your trash is not separated properly the collectors can refuse to pick it up! On my college campus there are many trashcans. Wherever you see trashcans you can bet that there will be one for garbage and one for recyclables. There are usually many bins in one place. One for glass, one for metals, one for paper, one for non-recyclables, and even one for food! The only downside is that this can be very confusing if you can’t understand Korean. I always look inside to see what has been thrown away and follow everyone else, but sometimes there are multiple materials in one bin! Thankfully, the people that collect the trash make sure everything is properly separated, but it would be nice to save them the time and effort by separating it yourself!

However, I have found that while there are many trashcans on my college campus, there are not that many in Seoul! This is actually a really big problem. My professor said that the government did this to encourage people to bring their trash with them, and dispose of it properly in their own homes, but what actually happens is that people leave it in big piles on the sidewalk! I asked one of my Korean friends what he thought about it and he told me that it is a really big issue. He said that he would like to see Seoul put trashcans around the city so that people could properly dispose of the trash, rather than leave it in ugly piles.

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

It is difficult to tell how average people feel about the environment. I spoke with a few of my Korean friends who expressed concern over waste management in Korea as well as global warming. My friend Hyeyoon is a strong advocate for renewable energy due to her concern over climate change. She says, “Climate change is an on-going problem that we know all too well today because of the recent drastic weather changes in many countries, including Korea.”

Even though my friends expressed concern, I constantly see trash piles in and around my neighborhood and many of my fellow students seem to disregard the recycling labels. It is difficult to say how strongly the average person here feels about protecting the environment.

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

Korea has a really interesting and also really complicated system for trash disposal. Rather than pay a monthly fee for your trash to be picked up, in Seoul you pay for trash pick up by buying garbage bags! Each district in Seoul has its own specific trash bag. The trash bags in Eunpyong, for example, are orange. You can buy these at convenience stores, but you can also get them at grocery stores.

Unlike in the U.S., you get charged for plastic bags at Korean grocery stores. A 20 liter bag for Eunpyong district cost 363 won. While this price is very cheap, it still encourages people to bring their own bags. If you do not dispose of your waste in the proper bag trash collectors will not pick up your trash. Since I live in a dorm I do not have to worry about this, but it can be very confusing for foreigners living in apartments.

Along with mandatory recycling it is also mandatory to separate your food waste in South Korea. There are even separate trash bags for it! Korea produces a lot of food waste. Restaurants are especially guilty of this because of all of the banchan, or side dishes, that get served at meals. By law restaurants have to throw out the food that people have not eaten, and because so many banchan are served there is a lot of food waste. In an attempt to reduce the amount of food waste Korea began to charge people for the waste they throw away. There are a few different ways that districts handle food waste disposal.

One of them is to have residents buy the trash bags for food waste. They come in three different sizes with the smallest size being the cheapest. The idea here is to encourage people to waste less food so that they can use the smallest size disposal bag. Other districts have special disposal containers that weigh your waste when you throw it out. Residents get charged based on how much food waste they are disposing of. This also encourages residents to waste less in order to save money. Korea has actually managed to reduce the amount of food waste it produces through this system!

Are things heavily packaged in plastic?

While you get charged for plastic bags at grocery stores you do not get charged for bags in convenience stores, clothing stores, makeup stores, and other small shops. Small stores  will often ask if you want a bag, rather than just giving you one, but makeup stores are notorious for putting your merchandise in a bag. They also give you free samples, all of which tend to be packaged in non-recyclable materials. Food, makeup and jewelry are also commonly packaged in plastic. Apples at the convenience store are often wrapped in their own little plastic bag! I feel like Korea is no worse than the U.S. in this regard.

Restaurants and my school cafeteria use reusable dishes, rather than disposable ones. Restaurant food does not tend to come wrapped in paper or plastic unless you are eating at a fast-food place like McDonalds or Taco Bell. However, Korean delivery food, in my experience, tends to come heavily wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. I have heard from other people though, that some delivery places will bring your food in reusable dishes. Once you are finished you leave the dishes outside your door and the delivery people come by later to pick them up!

Do people drink the tap water?

Before I came to Korea I was told by my doctor that the tap water was not safe to drink. Once I got to Korea though I was told by the lead doctors at one of the best hospitals that the tap water was perfectly safe to drink. Despite the fact that the tap water is safe, many Koreans do not drink it. Restaurants usually have water filtration systems where you can refill your cup, and I have seen these in houses as well. There is also one on every hallway of my dorm! This saves me from having to buy a lot of bottled water.

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

From what I have been able to research, there are quite a number of environment-related NGOs operating in South Korea. However, it is difficult to tell how much of an impact they have on governmental policy. The Korean government itself actively works on finding ways to improve South Korea’s environment. The Nanjido Landfill is a good example of the government’s success in this area.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government also has an organization called Arisu, created to improve and maintain the quality of Seoul’s drinking water. When I visited Seoul Zoo I saw many drinking fountains and they all had a sticker on them that says “Arisu: Good to drink!”



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