Recently I had the pleasure of visiting South Korea. Whenever I visit a foreign country, I can’t help but notice their waste bins; it’s a side-effect of working in the industry. While my friends take pictures of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, I’m looking at the recycling and garbage bins around it.
My first waste disposal encounter, in Korea, was at a Costco. A familiar place to Canadians, except for the many fish, dried fish, and onions available to purchase, but that’s a whole different story. I was surprised and intrigued by the way Costco’s cafeteria sorted its waste. First, food was placed on reusable plastic plates with reusable utensils, and paper cups. After devouring delicious pizza, I approached the disposal station. I was amazed by all the compartments: food waste went in one, liquid in another, and paper cups and plastic each had their own compartment too. Around the corner there were garbage cans for garbage. The sorting practices at the Costco in South Korea left me impressed and excited for what else I would find.
McDonalds and other fast food restaurants had similar waste sorting systems, where waste was sorted into more categories than just garbage and recyclables.
One evening I went to see The Hobbit at the local movie theatre and ordered popcorn. In Korea there are three flavours of movie theatre popcorn: butter, cheese and sweet. Naturally I had to try cheese and sweet. Upon exiting the theatre, two employees stood collecting waste and sorting leftover pop, popcorn, cups, and bottles away from garbage. You simply hand the waste to staff or place it on the counter and they sort it properly.
While I had learned a lot about waste disposal in restaurants, I still wanted to investigate home waste management practices. The lifestyle in South Korea is much different than here in Canada, with a very high percentage of the population living in apartments and multi-residential buildings. It was very rare to see a single-family home and even rarer to see a home with a yard. Due to an extremely high population, space is a hot commodity.
But during my visit, I did not see a single dumpster! Instead I learned garbage is on a pay-per-use bag system. Residents purchase their grocery store bags, which can then be used for disposal, but there are also bags available for purchase too. Garbage bags are placed out between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., with lamp posts and signs being common piling areas.
Similar to Halton Region, residents in South Korea sort their waste into three categories: food waste, recyclables and garbage. Recycling must be separated from garbage, but they don’t have Blue Boxes in South Korea. Instead, residents are to place recyclables in a reusable clear vinyl bag. Residents place their reusable bag of recyclables at a lamp post or sign, and then collect the empty bag the next day.
In Deagu (a city of 4 million people), food waste is placed in a small bucket and placed out to the curb any day but Sunday. In Halton, our food waste is turned into compost. In Deagu food waste is used to feed livestock. Because of this, items such as meat, bones, shells, and pits cannot be placed with food waste. Other Korean municipalities have different collection systems. In Seoul, you pay by weight for food waste. Machines that look like ATMs are found in neighborhoods. You simply swipe your card, place your food waste on the scale, and are billed accordingly. This new system is aimed at reducing food waste by 40%.
Initially you might think requiring residents to pay for food waste disposal would cause residents to place it in garbage bags. However, heavy enforcement seems to prevent this. For example if you don’t sort your waste properly, your neighbour can call in and report you. If recyclables or food waste is found in the garbage bag, the “offender” can be fined. Half the fine then goes to the neighbour who called in!
Throughout my stay, I came to realize that South Korea places a heavy emphasis on proper waste disposal. At every restaurant you must sort food waste, recyclables and garbage. Is this something that should be promoted more in Canada?
In 2009, South Korea’s residents recycled 61% of waste and 85% of industrial waste. To compare, in Ontario, 37% of residential waste is diverted and only 13% of industrial waste is diverted.
What have you learned from other countries as you’ve travelled?