Monday, May 16, 2011

Tales of waste disposal

One of the things I was instantly impressed by on my first stay in Seoul, way back in April 2002, was the diligence with which apartment complex residents separate and recycle their garbage. Most Seoulites live in massive, 20+ story apartment buildings, usually within a complex of several similar buildings. In the parking lots of these complexes you will find trash and recycling receptacles used by the residents.


There are separate receptacles for glass, aluminum, various different kinds of plastic and paper, styrofoam, and food waste.

A: glass B: aluminum C: hard plastic D: PET (plastic) bottles E: yogurt containers F: paper food cartons G: styrofoam H: vinyl (plastic wrap/bags) I: cardboard boxes J: paper K: non-recyclable trash L: food waste
It's not very picturesque, but it is an extremely convenient and user-friendly setup. In our complex, we can put out waste and recycling at any time. Trucks come by every night to pick them up. My coworker tells me that in her smaller complex the trucks only come on specific days, and the receptacle area is monitored by CCTV cameras so they can nab anyone who tries to leave something on the wrong day. Still, even at her small complex there are collection services for all the various recyclable materials.

The food waste is put in hard plastic tubs with lids secured by heavy stones, to prevent birds from scattering it. The other materials are put in large cloth sacks which are replaced when full. Non-recyclable trash must be put in special bags, which are sold at supermarkets for a small fee, which goes to pay for city garbage pick-up. Recycling is free for all residents. This gives people a slight but definite financial incentive to recycle as much as possible.

By comparison, the recycling situation I had in Kyoto was far inferior. Although Kyoto residents take a great deal of pride in their city's reputation as the site of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, in fact they only offer recycling for plastic, bottles, and cans - and they only recycle one type of plastic, and they only started doing that in 2007! Considering how Japanese food companies love to encase their products in multiple layers of plastic, styrofoam, and vinyl, this is quite disgraceful.

There were different pick-up days and sites for trash and recycling. If you put something out on the wrong day or in the wrong place, often a nosy neighbor would open the trash and go through it searching for something with an address on it, and then leave the bags outside the offender's front door with an accusatory note attached.

In both Kyoto and Sendai, both recycling and regular trash had to be put in special bags sold by the city, giving no financial incentive for recycling. In most neighborhoods, there is simply a designated site along the sidewalk where trash and recycling must be put out on certain days. There is seldom any means of protecting food trash from birds and other critters - at best, there might be a bit of plastic mesh netting to throw over it to keep it from blowing away. Back in Sendai, I remember one day going home mid-morning for some reason, to find that the garbage collectors had not come yet and the entire street outside my house was covered in trash that had been strewn by hungry crows. This explained a lot; I had rarely seen anyone littering in Japan, and yet the streets in my neighborhood always seemed to be full of trash.

Of course, waste disposal is a lot more manageable in a place like Seoul, where hundreds of households live together in the same massive complex. This is not possible in Kyoto because there are aesthetic laws restricting the heights of buildings. Also, Japanese people generally prefer not to build too high off the ground, due to the ever-present fear of earthquakes. I can understand how it would be impractical to have regular pickup of multiple different categories of trash for apartment complexes that are typically only 3-4 storeys and contain 10-15 units at most. But considering the massive amount of plastic that the Japanese consume every day, they ought to have a better system for recycling it.

Not only is every food product wrapped in layers of plastic, but whenever I bought anything from a convenience store in Japan, even a single bottle of juice, they would automatically put it in a plastic bag. I had to constantly remember to ask them not to bag it, and they would always give me a strange look when I did so. In Korea, unless you buy about 3 or more items, they won't give you a bag unless you ask for one, and some stores charge a small fee for bags.

Also, to this day I have no idea how one disposes of batteries in Japan. At one time in Kyoto I personally undertook a concerted campaign to figure this out; I asked everyone I knew - coworkers, friends, former professors, my landlord - and nobody seemed to know. Even an electronics shop that sold batteries couldn't give me an answer. In Seoul, by contrast, there is a bin for discarding batteries in every apartment right next to the elevators.

Also by the elevators, you will often find used furniture that people throw out when they don't need it anymore or when they move way. Some of this furniture is of quite good quality, and if another resident wants it they are usually allowed to just take it.

The discarded furniture selection in my apartment on a typical day
 When I moved away from Kyoto, getting rid of my furniture was a major ordeal. I was able to sell a few things to various "recycle shops," and I gave away a few things to friends. But everything else - my bed, microwave, refrigerator, and desk - had to be taken away by a disposal service, for which I had to pay a considerable fee. Some people in Japan clearly find these costs too burdensome, which is why anyone who hikes extensively in Japan is familiar with the sight of little graveyards of discarded furniture slowly rotting alongside dirt roads out in obscure parts of the countryside. So I was very pleased to see this simple system for discarding and re-acquiring used furniture right in my own building.

Seoul city is very proud of the efforts it has made in recent years to boost its eco-friendly image. These include significant increases in renewable energy use, several new parks and recreation areas, and a new fleet of city buses that run on natural gas. Seoul is not what I would call a pretty city; there is always a lot of pollution blowing over from China, and the highly concentrated population means inevitably there is a lot of litter on the streets and not enough greenery or parkland. Kyoto is gorgeous by comparison, blessed with clean air and surrounded by lush green mountains. Yet in terms of environmental awareness, I would give Seoul an A for effort, and Kyoto perhaps a C+.

1 comment:

  1. Dumpster diving can get you some pretty sweet stuff! Very cool collection of discarded furniture, I've never found any furniture through going dump diving.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.

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