Small Victories: Tackling the Recycling System

In the United States, people usually sort their trash in two separate bins– waste and recyclable. It’s something that people do instinctively and don’t really need too much direction to do. Even though some people don’t follow the instructions, (although they should) I’m pretty sure that they know about it. In elementary school, we were taught early about what is considered recyclable. So when I came to Korea, I didn’t think that the recycling system would really trip me up too much. I mean, how difficult could it be right? …… Extremely much so, at least for my roommates and I.

I know, you’re probably really confused. Why is recycling in Korea so difficult? Well, in Korea, you sort your recyclables in 7-8 different bins. (Side note: this actually depends on the place that you stay at, but this is the way that my housing facility did it. But generally speaking, even the most basic sorting requires at least 4 different bins.) There is your general waste, food waste, clothing, and recyclables. Recyclables are then further sorted into cans, bottles, plastic, vinyl, and paper. The system is pretty meticulous and intensive compared to what we do in the States.

There are specific waste bags that you must purchase to place your trash in. In United States, we usually place our trash in generic black trash bags, but here, you need to go to convenience stores and buy trash bags that are specific to your neighborhood. General waste bags are usually just white, but the food waste bags are color-coded for your neighborhood and you must use the one correct one. The consequences of sorting your trash wrong can be pretty steep overtime, I believe the fine can run to up to ₩300,000 (roughly $300 USD) depending on the severity. Either way, it’s something I’d like to actively avoid.

Now that we know the sections, you’d think that we can just throw away our trash. However, there are a lot of ambiguous items that we were unsure of where they should be disposed of… Like, where does styrofoam go? What about aluminum foil go? I’ve searched online for answers, but they simply say to sort it in the categories provided, and everything else goes in general waste. But do they really belong in general? It’s confusing. I felt like the recycle system really encouraged hoarding for the lazy. Even beyond being lazy, we were scared of sorting our trash incorrectly and getting a hefty fee. It actually took us about 2 weeks before we took out our trash for the first time after moving in. Trash was piled to the brim- so much that we hard to start getting creative on how to balance more trash on top of trash. Gross.

Considering the fact that I’m three months deep in my study abroad adventure, I’d like to say that I can confidently sort about 90% of our waste at this point. Something that helps is that sometimes products have a recycle symbol, along with a label of where it belongs. (In this photo, it says vinyl!) We also bought a couple bags that have labels of what goes in what. It makes taking out trash a little easier, as we can just grab this can go downstairs to throw it in the respective bins outside.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a little when I say this process is super difficult. It definitely was something that I needed warming up to and needed time to really get a hang of how to do it properly. I think that the system isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. For example, food waste bags were intended to keep citizen conscious of how much food they may be wasting and to promote better lifestyles. They also recycle the food waste pretty efficiently, by turning approved food waste it into fertilizer or even animal feed. Their system is definitely meant to be more good than hassle and once you settle in, I think that what they are doing is admirable. A culture shock for sure!