recycling.jpgMy “I’m a Californian, so what could I learn about recycling from Korea?” attitude was shattered on my first day in Seoul. It happened innocently enough. I just dipped into a corner store and was drop-jawed at what I found out: every food store in Korea has customer recycling and compost bins.

In fact, homes and businesses all over Korea recycle and compost as a general rule. More than 40% of solid waste is recycled and about 55% of food waste is composted as fertilizer and feed. Still, the recycling laws behind these successes are only part of the puzzle. Koreans, it seems, don’t fully appreciate their country’s recycling system; and it’s hurting recycling efforts.

Many believe that recycling and compost is either burned, buried, or dumped at sea. In fact, this is a common skepticism the world over that’s preventing better recycling. Despite growing up watching Mr. Rogers on TV visiting and explaining recycling plants (come on… we all think Mr. Rogers is cool, right?), too many people secretly suspect that their separated recycling and waste all gets burned or buried together in the end.

In Korea as elsewhere, of course, skepticism about recycling is completely unfounded. (California, incidentally, has successfully reduced its waste by over 50% from 1989 levels.)

Recycling and composting in the Republic of Korea

In the home, Koreans don’t have recycling bins. Too many Korean houses are built along tiny, ancient alleyways or winding country roads to make door-to-door curbside pickup viable. Instead, Koreans have plastic bags of different colors in which to sort garbage, compost, and recycling. As an incentive to recycle, homes that pay for garbage service don’t have to pay for recycling. After filling the bags, we take them to the nearest collection site. There’s usually one on each street, so we don’t have to walk too far. Still, when it’s snowing and below zero, it sure makes you appreciate curbside pickup.

Businesses are required by law to recycle and compost. Businesses not caught not recycling get hit with a hefty three-grand fine each time they don’t recycle. For photos of fast food recycling Korean style, take a look at the Daily Kimchi’s article.

And, yes, in case you were wondering. If you go to the small trouble to separate your cans and bottles, they really do get recycled. Honest.

For further reading:

The truth about recycling | The Economist

Waste Reduction and Recycling Law in Korea | The American Bar Association

Food Waste Reduction and Recycling (2002) | Ministry of Environment Republic of Korea