Theresa’s Communities Field Note

Putting the Trash to Work!

What do you do with your garbage? Korea has been coming up with creative ideas to turn trash into a good thing!

Korea used to have a big garbage problem. Between the years 1980 and 2000, Korea started doing much more business with other countries and making more money. Having more money meant that the people could afford to buy more stuff. Eventually, lots of this extra stuff ended up in the garbage. The country needed a solution, and fast!

Are there ways or places to recycle in the local community, and if so, is it easy for people to access?

I remember when I moved from Oregon to New Mexico, I was shocked at the differences I noticed in people’s recycling habits. Oregon is very enthusiastic about recycling and protecting the environment. The first time I saw a friend of mine in New Mexico throw soda cans away, I could hardly believe it! It sounds silly, but if that were to happen in Oregon, someone else would probably go and take the cans out of the trash to recycle them.

It’s not that people in New Mexico don’t want to recycle, but it is very inconvenient to do so. I would have to walk my recyclables to another building just to dispose of them properly. People are busy, so recycling programs should be convenient, or else they are not likely to be successful. In Korea, recycling bins are located next to almost every trash can. Wherever you would normally take your garbage, there is typically a recycling option as well. There are sets of trash cans and recycling bins on every floor of the building I live in. Talk about convenient!

The convenience of recycling in Korea is great, however, it can be a little complicated. Since I do not read the Korean language well, I often get confused by the many types of recycling bins. There is a different can for plastics, paper, cups, trash, and so on. This system makes it easy for the waste collection workers, but it is a little more time consuming for the person trying to throw away their trash. I think that this is a small price to pay for a cleaner earth!

Watch this video to learn how to recycle in Korea:

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

Korean people are very aware of their community. In the United States, young people are encouraged to be themselves and be an individual. Americans focus on personal goals and creating the great kind of life they want for themselves. In Korea, people are encouraged to blend into the crowd. Students study what their parents want them too and do the job that their family wishes. It is very different from what I am used to!

That being said, Koreans are conscious of how their actions impact other people. Everyone works together to help make the community a great place to be. Having a clean environment is a big part of maintaining a happy community. Each person does their part to protect the environment. People young and old all are glad to do their part!

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

If you break a law in the United States, often times you will be fined a certain amount of money. Nobody likes to pay fees. We want to spend our money on fun things like traveling and ice cream! In Korea, people must buy special trash bags, or else the trash will not be accepted at the landfill. These trash bags cost money, but recycling is free! People who recycle a lot can save their money to spend on fun things, rather than garbage.

We may try to avoid it, but food is thrown out every day. It is sad to have food wasted, but in Korea at least they are able to put the leftover food to good use. When people are done with their meals, the food left on their plates is collected and taken to a special collection center.

In the United States and many other countries, food waste is put in the same place as the regular trash. When food waste sits in regular landfills, it not only smells bad, but it contaminates underground water and causes air pollution. Korea has found a way to turn these bad things into something good! At the special food waste collection centers, the food is turned into energy!

Ninety-eight tons of food is processed at the center in Seoul every single day! The food is allowed to decompose in an oxygen-free environment, which causes it to produce a natural gas. This “biogas” is collected and can be used to power buildings and even cars! Enough energy is collected to power the homes of ten-thousand people! What an awesome way to use garbage for good!

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

In 2008, the people of Korea elected their former president, Mr. Lee. President Lee was very concerned about the environment and helped to protect it in during his time in office. New laws were put into place, such as requiring all public buildings to use LED light bulbs. LED bulbs are better for the environment, reducing waste in the landfills since they last longer than regular light bulbs.

Other things throughout the country were made more energy efficient. Becoming more efficient means that the people used fewer resources to accomplish their goal. For example, old homes were updated with new technology so that they used less electricity. New “green homes” were also built in Korea.

Cars contribute largely to the pollution in the environment, so Korea searched for a way to help this problem. They decided to create more bike lanes in the cities as well as researching and promoting public transportation, such as high speed trains. Korea is one of the few countries in the world with high speed trains. The United States doesn’t even have any yet!

 5. Are there any youth groups, community organizations, NGO or INGOs actively working to address solid waste management issues in your community? Who are they and what are they doing. What can we learn from them? If possible, take a field trip and check out their work!

The largest environmental organization in South Korea is the Ministry of Environment. They have many areas of the environment that they regulate. The Resource Recirculation Bureau is the branch of the Ministry of Environment which focuses on reducing solid waste and using the little that is created for good. Sounds like a tough job, doesn’t it?

Some things that we use are very difficult to dispose of. The Resource Recirculation Bureau has placed “waste charges” on these tricky products. The money goes to help dispose of these items once people are done with them, and to help discourage people from misusing them. Waste charges are placed on such items as chemicals, plastic, diapers, and even chewing gum!

 6. Work to get information and opinions from local people. Identify the different variables that affect the way people are addressing the issue of trash. Try and find a local person who has an action plan or idea for how to address the problem. Be as specific, detail-oriented and factual in your observations and interviews with people.

Do you know what a monk is? Maybe you have seen a picture of one- they are bald guys who wear robes and dedicate their lives to their religion, Buddhism. When I go to visit the beautiful temples here in Korea, I always get to see the Buddhist monks who live there. Buddhism is a popular religion in South Korea. What do you think this has to do with the environment?

The Buddhist religion teaches that it is important to be respectful of the environment.  They do not like to waste anything. When I was invited to eat lunch at a temple, I was told that it was respectful to finish all of the food that I was served, because wasting food is not acceptable. That was okay, the food was delicious!

Only monks live at the temples, but ordinary people do their part to protect the environment as well. Have you ever been to a farmer’s market? Here in Korea, there are similar markets in every town. This is a great place to buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and other homemade foods. Shopping at these kinds of markets also helps to reduce waste, since the foods are not packaged like they are at a typical grocery store. Also, shoppers bring their own reusable bags. This is a fun way to eat healthy, support the local people, and protect the earth!

There are many ways to help keep the earth clear of waste. Korea has found several ways to manage the waste created by their large population. The most important thing to remember is that every little thing will have a large impact in the long run. Each day we make choices- should I throw this away here or walk a little bit out of the way to recycle it? I hope that you will do you part and go out of your way to help our world stay clean!


Are there  trash cans located on public streets? No

Do individual homes recycle trash? Yes

Do grocery stores charge money for plastic bags? Yes

Are grocery items are heavily packaged with plastic? Yes

Do people drink tap water? No

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