For me, rubbish piled high on the streets was not to be expected in a First World country.
In truth, I must confess that Korea’s garbage disposal system is much more in keeping with the original ill-informed, vague, preconceived notion I had of SK as a still-developing country – one where people pulled carts down streets instead of driving fancy cars, and lived in quaint ramshackle houses instead of high-rise apartment buildings.
My expectations were embarrassingly wrong, as I discovered when I stepped off the airport bus in Daejeon and found myself surrounded by tall buildings, neon lights, bustling crowds of the most well-groomed and elegant people you will ever see, and 6 lanes of roaring traffic (mostly Hyundais!).
However, one area of daily life does seem strangely at odds with the otherwise hi-tech and service-oriented Korean lifestyle: rubbish. There are no binmen (as we call them in the UK) with loud and beeping lorries here. Nor, for that matter, are there any bins. Now, I don’t just mean that there are no bins for us to leave out with our household waste for a weekly collection – no, I mean there are NO BINS WHATSOEVER. I still get agitated when I’m walking through the streets drinking from a bottle or eating lunch on the go, and find myself carrying the empty container/packaging around with me like I can’t bear to part with it. I really don’t know what you’re supposed to do in this sort of situation. If I have a bag, I’ll pop the rubbish in there and take it home, but very often I’ll just sneakily add it to one of the piles of rubbish along my way.
Ah yes, the piles of rubbish. I am being completely serious about this. I was just looking on Google for some photos to illustrate it, and then thought “Nah, I’ll just nip outside and take a couple of quick pictures.” You really don’t have to look very far to see this kind of sight:
I’m guessing it’s partly a space issue, since everything is so tightly packed here that you’d fill an entire parking lot with the bins from one apartment complex. Instead, we leave bottles, paper, and other recyclable materials in old shopping bags outside our building. Some buildings, like mine, have a specific little square area for this, while others just make do with the street/doorway/steps. Food waste gets put into the little red buckets you see in the picture. And everything else – the actual rubbish, the stuff that can’t be recycled or used – must be put in the green trash bags you can buy at all shops. This is the only part that costs you any money – probably aimed at encouraging people to recycle everything they can, since recycling is free. The more you throw away as rubbish, the more you pay.
And where does this rubbish go? To be fair, it does seem to get picked up very quickly, as I leave mine out on the way to work on random days of the week and find it gone by the time I get home. The recyclables get picked up by the elderly folk. No such thing as a relaxing retirement here! If you can still walk (and some of them can just about, almost bent double), you can serve the community. Every morning I meet a crowd of ajummas departing from the community centre to pick up litter from the local streets. And you can’t go far without seeing a very old man or woman pulling a rickety cart piled high with cardboard or bottles.
It does seem very out of place – especially when you step out of the quieter neighbourhoods like mine, and take a walk through the crazily busy city streets. Stepping around piles of stinking rubbish just doesn’t fit with the rest of the experience. And let’s not even mention the advertisers, who spend their evenings driving through the streets throwing piles of fliers out of car windows and business cards off motorbikes.