I know what you’re thinking, “What an exciting title!” But trust me this article contains important information to help you navigate a topic that you wouldn’t normally think would be confusing. Recycling and waste disposal in South Korea is actually pretty different than in North America and other Western countries. Prior to moving to South Korea,I had no idea that there were any major differences with trash and recycling but I was very mistaken! Hopefully after reading my article you’ll feel more informed and prepared for the changes to come.
(below, a photo of the shopping district in Busan)
First off trash. Trash (anything that you cannot recycle) is split into two groups. Food waste and non-food waste. To dispose of non-food waste you must buy specific bags for your ‘gu’ (the neighborhood where you live). You can buy these at grocery stores and convenience stores. Whenever you go to the grocery story in your area and ask for a plastic bag for your groceries it will be a waste disposal bag. These bags vary in size and usually cost between 50 cents and a dollar (US). The bags in my area (Haeundae-gu, Busan) are blue! I’ve also seen white trash bags. The bags tell you what day the trash in your area is picked up but you can place them outside your apartment with the other trash at any time. At first these bags don’t seem big enough to hold much trash, but keep in mind there are many different things you recycle and that food waste doesn’t go in these bags.
Now let’s discuss food waste, food waste is a very important part of waste disposal in South Korea! You’ll notice food waste not only at your apartment building but also at restaurants and schools. Recycling food waste is mandatory and you may get in trouble with your landlord/building owner if you throw food waste out. Food waste is recycled in small buckets which you can buy at any supermarket. Once your bucket is filled you can set outside the building, next to the trash, for pickup. If you’re unsure if something is food waste ask yourself these questions: could it be composted? Could it be used as animal feed? Generally food waste is used for those purposes as well as for fuel.
One word of advice with food waste: it can smell horrible. This is why the buckets are so small. Try to avoid creating lots of food waste and then you’ll have less to get rid of. Also - if you’re sensitive to smells you can freeze your food waste and then dispose of it once you have enough to fill the bucket.
Another word of advice with trash in general: public trash cans are few and far between in Korea. Unlike most cities that have trash cans located on city streets or dumpsters etc., in South Korea it can be very difficult to find a public trash can. So difficult that when I first moved abroad I joked that there should be a phone app for finding public trash cans! If you’re searching for a trash can keep this in mind - most subways have a trash can located near where you swipe in, and some buses have a small trash can by the doors. Some public beaches have trash cans at the edge of the beach, depending on if it is beach season.
Now onto recycling! Recycling in Korea is generally broken up into 6 groups: plastic bottles and containers, plastic wraps, cans, glass bottles, paper products, and food containers that are recyclable (like ramen bowls, paper juice boxes, etc.). Most landlords try to make recycling easy for their tenants and themselves by putting out six separate trash cans to sort your recyclables into. Once those trash cans are full the landlords put them in bags to be collected. At my apartment the recycling is located downstairs by the elevator, and this is usually the case or sometimes it’s located outside the lobby of the apartment building. Recycling is usually pretty self explanatory and it’s easy to see what goes in which trash can by lifting the lid! I never had to learn how to read Hangul, I always just lifted the lid to see what to put in each can.
Lastly, what I talked about earlier with recycling and food waste in restaurants and schools. In my school all the food waste is sent to the kitchen and they dispose of it properly. We have 3 bins for recycling paper, plastic, and cans and bottles (which are then sorted later by the cleaners). Some schools might do this differently but I’m sure all schools recycle! In fast food restaurants like Lotteria at the trash cans there will be a place to dispose of food waste and liquids, trash, and recyclables. It’s usually very self explanatory and most restaurants do it for you.
Who knew there was so much to learn about trash and recycling in Korea! Culture shock isn’t so bad when you’re prepared and know what’s to come. Happy recycling!
Monica Russo graduated from Texas A&M University with a Bachelors in Psychology and is from St. Louis, Missouri. After spending a couple years in social work she decided to move abroad to learn more about other cultures and to challenge herself to live outside her comfort zone. Moving abroad hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it and Monica loves living in Busan, South Korea. She loves new experiences, hiking, exploring other cities and helping others any way that she can. Her philosophy with her students is work hard, play hard!