Let’s talk 쓰레기–trash.
One of the initial hurdles that an expat faces is what to do with their trash.
In the US, you pay for a trash pick-up service that comes once a week on a specific day and collects your trash bags (purchased from any store) from either the end of your driveway or the trash dumpster located in the area where you live (if you live in an apartment). Recycling is usually one big (blue or green) bin where all recyclable material goes together and is sorted later at a recycling facility.
In Korea, they have a 종량제 (Jongnyangje) or VBWF (volume-based waste fee) system that started in 1995. (You can read more about it here.) You’ll have to buy special trash bags in the area where you live in order to throw away your trash. These trash bags are usually sold at convenience stores like 7/11 and GS25. They are usually either white or yellow and come in sizes like 10 liter, 20 liter, 50 liter, and 100 liter. There is usually a space outside your apartment or villa for disposal of these trash bags.
As far as recycling goes… prepare to get it wrong. You will inevitably put something where it isn’t supposed to be and heaven forbid you do so in front of a security guard or local ahjumma (middle-aged woman; it comes with its own stereotype).
There’s a section for cans. Plastic containers. Glass bottles. Styrofoam boxes. Cardboard boxes. Other assorted paper goods. Vinyl, which includes plastic food wrappers and bubble wrap. There’s a large green bin for clothing donation. There’s a special box or bin for food trash. (And, in some cases, it’s a smart bin that charges the individual for the amount of food trash they dispose of.) My current apartment complex has a few other recycling options, such as a spot for broken lightbulbs and used batteries.
That doesn’t sound so bad until it’s 11pm at night and you’re faced with what to do with an empty McDonald’s drink cup. The plastic sleeve it was delivered in is certainly vinyl, right? What about the straw? Can I recycle that as plastic? What about the cup itself? Do I rinse it out and put it with paper goods? Or just throw it away because it’s not entirely paper? If I throw it away and a security guard sees it in the trash bag, will he open up the bag to put it in the proper place? (I’ve seen this happen with trash bags that had cans of beer and glass energy drink bottles in it.) Egg shells don’t go in the food trash, but what about banana peels?
To avoid a scolding, I have come to do what my friends call my “midnight runs.” A true “midnight run” in the expat community is when a person decides to leave the country without telling their boss they’re quitting and leaving–they just fail to show up to work. My “midnight run” is when I squirrel all my trash downstairs after 11pm, when the security guard is usually done for the night and I can sort my recycling in peace without having someone stand over my shoulder.
I recently moved and, to my surprise, my new apartment was fully furnished. I didn’t need a sofa, a table, a TV, a dresser, a microwave and microwave stand… The big question for my first month was, “How the hell do I get rid of this?” Unlike in the US, I couldn’t just leave it outside for someone to take it.
I turned to a donation group on Facebook and listed the items. I was able to give away some items to other expats, like my microwave and a cell phone stand that was left behind by the previous tenant. For other items, I had to go to the convenience store and ask for a trash sticker. (Sometimes you can ask your security guard, but mine don’t do this at my new place.) I’d show the cashier a picture of the item I was going to be throwing out, like my table, and they would figure out what amount of money I had to pay to throw it out. (In the table’s case, it was something like 4,000 won, or $4.) Then I would put the table outside the apartment complex and it would magically disappear. (I think what actually happens is the security guard sees it outside and calls a number to inform someone to come pick it up.)
Figuring out trash in Korea is hard. It isn’t just hard for expats, though–my friends have seen Koreans get scolded for not throwing something away properly. And if you find yourself in downtown Seoul wondering where all the trash cans are, well… they were taken out because people were putting their household trash in the public trashcans and thereby gaming the VBWF system. If I can just throw away my trash in this public trash can, I don’t have to buy a bag to dispose of it at my residence, right?
An article from March 2021 states that Seoul has begun adding back the trash cans they initially took away. (Read it here.) There is still a dearth of public trash cans in Seoul, however, and I usually end up walking into a convenience store to throw away my trash if I’m walking around Seoul, much to the annoyance of the worker there.
One day I’ll be confident enough in my recycling abilities that I will be able to walk out the front door of my apartment complex and not fear the security guard coming up behind me to scold me for recycling something wrong. Until then, it’s almost 11pm, so that means I have to get my trash ready for collection.