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  Straits Times 30 Sep 07
Koreans trash the waste problem
By Lee Tee Jong

A TRIP to the rubbish dump is part of my daily routine in South Korea. Unlike my HDB apartment block in Singapore, my apartment block in Seoul has no rubbish chute. Instead, I bring food waste to a common bin at the bottom of the block.

During my first attempt at this three years ago, the overpowering stench of rotting meat coming from the bin nearly made me throw up. I have since learnt to hold my breath while getting rid of the food waste.

Koreans throw away 4.1 million tonnes of food waste every year. All the waste is collected at special facilities and processed there into organic fertiliser used for growing crops.

The Koreans do not just recycle food waste. Metal cans, glass bottles, batteries and waste paper also have their designated containers at the foot of apartment blocks.

Metals such as copper, zinc and magnesium can be recycled without losing any of their properties. Glass is used in the production of new bottles. Used batteries are taken to factories for processing and separated into plastics, acid and an assortment of metals. The assortment is melted to recover the various types of metals. Paper is taken to the paper mill and processed with chemicals to make new paper sheets.

There is a separate collection point within a housing estate for bulky electrical appliances such as refrigerators and computers. These appliances are dismantled and the parts recycled without releasing harmful gases into the environment.

In South Korea, recycling is a way of life. Residents spend several minutes every day sorting out the trash before bringing it to the designated areas for disposal.

My housewife neighbour, Park Gyeong Sook, 45, said: 'It is just a small part that we can play to protect the environment.'

Such an attitude did not come out of nowhere. It is something that has been cultivated over the past 12 years.

Before 1995, there was no incentive for Korean households to separate their recyclables or reduce waste generation, as the waste collection fee was based on real estate value.

That changed in 1995 after the government introduced a new volume-based garbage disposal system, in which all households and commercial building owners were required to buy specially designed plastic trash bags.

Each bag is the size of a McDonalds large takeaway bag. Cleaners will only collect trash that has been placed in these bags. The bags - sold at neighbourhood stores for 300 won (48 Singapore cents) a piece - bear the name of the district where they can be used.

The message was clear: You throw more, you pay more. For those who go the extra mile to sort out recyclables, free disposal is provided. Racks were built for residents to place their recyclables.

Those who use unauthorised garbage bags can be fined up to one million won (S$1,650). The government even offered monetary rewards for information on the identities of offenders.

In the early days of implementing the policy, there were news reports of people rummaging through their neighbours' trash to find out the identities of offenders so that they could report the culprits and get the cash reward.

The new policy was a success, reducing the nation's waste by almost 20 per cent in a decade, according to the Ministry of Environment.

Like many Koreans, I have mastered the art of squeezing as much rubbish as possible into the official bags to reduce my cost. I can squeeze one month's worth of non-recyclable trash into an official bag.

The law also requires department stores and supermarkets to charge 100 won for a paper shopping bag. Shoppers take their own carrier bags to reduce the use of plastic bags. Those who do so are rewarded with a 50 won discount off their purchase. Those who forget pay 50 won for a plastic bag.

Fast-food outlets must dispose of at least 90 per cent of used paper cups in designated recycling bins. Those who fail to do so are fined up to three million won for each violation.

In the early days, when there were not enough government inspectors to go around to ensure compliance, non-government organisation activists would stand in for them.

Initially, Koreans complained about the hassle of having to recycle. Madam Park recalled: 'It is natural for people to want convenience. Changing a mindset is never easy. 'However, as time went by, we saw the virtues of recycling and came to accept it.'

Reducing the use of garbage bags also means the city is not littered with mounds of them, an eyesore in many cities.

Long-time residents said that the indiscriminate throwing of rubbish has been visibly cut down.

During my three-year stay in Korea, I have not heard anyone questioning the wisdom of recycling.

In fact, Koreans have become so pro-recycling that some who visited Singapore found it discomfiting to see recycling bins brimming over with all kinds of rubbish.

Miss Kim Hyun Joo, 29, a teacher who went on a tour to Singapore recently, said: 'I was shocked to see people throwing food waste into recycling bins outside City Hall MRT. 'Had it been in Korea, the culprit would have been publicly rebuked by a passer-by.'

Recycling is a way of life for the Koreans Lee Tee Jong Straits Times 7 Jul 07
Related articles in Singapore: reduce, reuse, recycle
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