On Cultural Encounters and Tangents

By Maggie Velasquez-Choi

Trash Talking -
If you’re looking for ideas on how to encourage or enforce recycling and garbage reduction in your community then consider South Korea’s laws, then disregard them altogether and go back to the drawing board.

Starting in 1995 South Korea implemented some new garbage and recycling regulations, partly to save the planet, but mostly because of the very limited landfill space.  Most Americans are extremely spoiled in that we can buy huge black plastic bags, put almost anything inside them then throw them into the dumpster or set them on the curb for the trash truck to come by.  Okay, so we had a bit of restrictions in Arlington, we weren’t allowed to put grass clippings in the bags.  We were encouraged to leave them on the lawn as compost, but I couldn’t have my dog going in and out through her pet door and tracking in grass clippings. I would dump the mower bag’s contents in a pile at the side of the house then take them to the landfill’s compost pile at the end of the season, but aside from that, recycling was optional.

Here in Korea it’s the law.  Our utility room is piled high with recyclable “trash” (as is everybody else’s) which gets taken out by my father-in-law on Wednesday nights for the Thursday morning pickup.  Outside, at the recycling pickup place, he separates it into the proper receptacles (the receptacles are not there on other days).  The regular trash (non-recyclables) is put into special trash bags.  These specially-marked bags are sold at any grocery store but they are government supplied (for a fee).  Thus if you don’t throw out any trash you pay nothing.  If you throw a lot of trash (and use a lot of bags) you pay a lot.  Believe me, bags get stuffed to the hilt.  If I’m lazy about recycling and just throw everything into these government trash bags I’d be paying big bucks for my garbage.  You’ll get fined if you get caught putting non-government trash bags into the dumpsters.  Costco’s industrial-sized boxes of American Glad trash bags are selling about as fast as hair nets.  Even at McDonald’s we have to recycle.  The leftover drink is dumped in here, the cup there, the lid here, the paper there…. A foreigner first needs to read the Korean writing, then understand the translation in order to dump his tray correctly.  I used to think that Koreans were speaking Konglish (not correct English) when they called a certain bottle a PET bottle.  There are even recycling receptacles specifically for PET containers.  Then, while in Japan, I saw the same PET containers, so I decided to look it up.  It stands for Polyethylene Therephthalate.  It’s a relatively valuable plastic (unlike the other low-density plastics) that is recycled into countless other products. 

Because the policymakers took into account that some people would cheat and put their trash into public containers, 90% of street trash cans and trash bags were removed.  A mother stated in a newspaper that she got after her son for throwing away his candy wrapper on the street and she made him pick it up and they went looking for a trash can and couldn’t find one after an hour.  She understands why the streets are littered as they are and why people throw trash on the street.  Of course, if you’re caught by a city worker you’ll be fined from twenty-five to a hundred dollars.  Thus people will stash it in mailboxes, vending machines and all kinds of crevices.  All trash cans were removed from the subway stations, except one by the ticket counter.  They said it was because of the subway station bombs-in-the-trash can scares that were happening in Europe.  But they did not remove the vending machines.  The cleaners have job security there but they are tired out.  Japan removed their trash cans from the subway stations but they also removed the vending machines.  France changed theirs to be see-through.

People (and street cleaners) are complaining that the plan isn’t working but the government won’t back down. They have already removed 90% of the pre-existing trash cans in public areas and they will remove 100% from state parks this summer.

They said that the garbage output has decreased by 20% so they’ll continue with the policy.

There are no easy answers.  Although each Korean generates much less garbage than a typical American does it has a bigger impact here because of the crowdedness (11 million people in Seoul) and the limited landfill space.  Once when we were driving on the north side of Seoul (we live in a southern suburb) I spotted a strange-looking mountain.  It didn’t look like the rest of them.  It was about 4 miles long and flat on top, like a mesa.  It was covered in greenery but not bushy with trees like the rest of the mountains.  At the top of the flat mesa were power windmills.  My husband explained to me that it was a mountain of trash.  Just a few years back when Seoul hadn’t yet spread thus far this was a landfill in the outskirts of town.  The city dumped the trash, covering it daily,  until it was a huge mountain and then covered it in greenery.  A new mountain was started elsewhere.

  It’s a noble thought and action to recycle and waste as little as possible.  It’s not fun when we’re forced to do it but if we aren’t forced sometimes we tend to be lazy and not do it at all.