The way trash is handled here in Seoul remains something of a mystery to me, even after two years of living here. The basics are that you’re supposed to divide everything into recyclables, food waste, and general trash. How that plays out seems to vary depending on who you talk to and what website you read. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, so we do the best we can and know that the guys working in our building’s trash room will correct us if they see us doing something incorrectly. They are far from shy.
Comparison to the US from my perspective
- How do I pay to dispose of my trash?
US: Individuals pay for weekly trash service, possibly included in apartment rental fees.
ROK: Purchase trash bags (available in various sizes) from convenience store. I really think this is a great system. I like that recycling carries an incentive and you can actually save money by doing so. We use 1-2 large trash bags per month.
- What about recycling?
US: Generally, plastic, metal, glass, and paper are recyclable, although we’ve lived in areas where sometimes random things like colored glass are excluded. Recycling of batteries and plastic bags seems to be confined to certain recycling centers (aka that box at Wal-Mart). Depending on where you live, you may have to separate individual types of recycling.
ROK: Generally seems broader with more types of plastic included. Our building has recycling for batteries, clothing, styrofoam, light bulbs, and a few other things, but certain websites I’ve read declare that Seoul does not recycle these things. ???
- Where do I put my trash?
US: apartment complex dumpster or home trash cans that are hauled to the curb weekly
ROK: Our building has a trash room, but not all housing has this. Piles of trash are frequently to be seen on what seem like random corners, but are apparently “designated areas.” I’m fairly certain a designated area is just whatever corner people deem convenient.
- When is trash pickup?
US: scheduled or designated day
ROK: It’s a big mystery. Sometimes piles of trash seem to be there for weeks, but sometimes they disappear overnight.
- What about food waste?
US: If you’re a crunchy granola type of person, you compost, but that’s about your only option other than stuffing as much as possible down your garbage disposal.
ROK: In our building, we have a specific container for food waste in the trash room. If you don’t have that, you purchase food waste bags and leave full ones out with your other trash. Our church purchases stickers, which are affixed to a food waste container and put out. The trash people empty it when they come around. Not all food waste is allowed (bones, shells, tea bags), but this seems to vary depending on the website you read.
- How do I get rid of things that won’t fit in a trash bag?
US: Place item on curb with a “free” sign on it or beg a friend with a truck to help you haul it to a dump.
ROK: Officially, you’re supposed to purchase a sticker to place on your item before hauling it out. The price of the sticker varies depending on the size of the item. In reality … well, I’ve seen a couch that looked like it had been waiting for the trash guy for years.