Changing attitudes to waste in Seoul

5th of July 2017
Changing attitudes to waste in Seoul
Changing attitudes to waste in Seoul

With a staggering 10 million inhabitants Seoul in South Korea is one of Asia’s biggest cities. Yet the city succeeded in reducing the total volume of waste from the mid 90s. By doing so the citizens of Seoul became more aware of garbage, littering and were included in keeping Seoul clean. Bobbie van der List reports exclusively for ECJ.

Walk through the streets of Seoul and you’ll notice how clean it is. Like its neighbour Japan, littering is not in their genes, therefore prevention is the key of maintaining clean public spaces. Despite the millions of people using public transport daily, it is surprising to see how clean the stations, tracks and trains are. And the same can be said about the city’s parks and other public places.

The basis for Seoul’s cleaning mentality was created mid-1990s when the government realised that issues with household waste were getting out of hand. Not only did the household waste collection system cause issues on the streets and to the environment, people simply didn’t obey the rules because, frankly, there weren’t any rules to follow. At least that was the opinion of the metropolitan government of Seoul city at the time.

The biggest impact of changing regulations regarding the way people need to separate their household waste and the way private companies must collect and process it thereafter, meant that the total volume of household waste decreased by 40 per cent up to 2015, in comparison to the year 1995.

If we compare Seoul’s effort to prevent production of waste, the South Korean capital scores extraordinarily well in an international context. Yong-Chil Seo, professor of environmental engineering at Yonsei University in Seoul, says the city scores especially well in comparison to cities in other high developed nations. “The average score of OECD-countries is 2.2 kilos household waste per person per day. In Seoul we are below one kilo, it’s good, and we should continue this effort.”

Cleaning became part of life

Everywhere you can see that keeping the city clean is imprinted into the mindset of Seoul citizens today. Many companies therefore take great pride in ensuring goods are recycled and preventing unnecessary waste to be produced and consumed.

But how did Seoul city reach this point, where citizens seem to be very much concerned with keeping the city clean, as this is not something that comes naturally? Gye-dong Choi, team leader of the recycling department of Seoul metropolitan government, explains how they achieved today’s cleaning consciousness.

“We introduced a volume-based collection fee system halfway through the 90s. The idea was to create a cleaner society and simultaneously introducing a fairer payment system, where the polluter pays for the rubbish he or she produces.”

The payment lies in the fact that citizens of Seoul had to buy prepaid rubbish bags. Professor Seo says this was gradually called ‘pay-as-you-throw’ by Seoul citizens. “The Ministry of Environment introduced the payment system, meaning they had to buy specially designed plastic waste bags for each different category of waste. It meant they had to properly sort waste.” Consequently people
became more aware of separating their rubbish at source.

For a rubbish bags of 20 litres people had to pay around 39 cents. For large waste such as sofas, refrigerators, PCs and other large items, people must pay between €2 and €20, depending on the size of the waste. Interestingly it led to citizens over-thinking the way they dealt with their waste. Most notably, reusing rubbish started to be a financially viable alternative to throwing it away, as this was going to be an expensive habit.

Professor Seo explains how his own habits fundamentally changed after the introduction of the ‘pay-as-you-throw’-system. “I decreased the waste I produced by nearly 50 per cent,” he says proudly.
For the Seoul city government, it meant extra money – €96 million – that they used for processing the household waste.

But old habits die hard, also when it comes to people’s cleaning behaviour. When the government introduced the system, mid-90s, it didn’t lead to cleaner streets - in fact, the opposite happened. “At first there was non-compliance, people used wrong rubbish bags, illegal dumping of waste happened, as well as burning of waste. Illegal dumping was very problematic and a big issue at the end of the 90s’, says professor Seo.

In response to these issues the government came up with several tools to make the streets of Seoul clean again. In each district an ‘honorary citizen monitor’ was appointed, otherwise referred to as waste managers. They received training from the city government so they could assist people in their neighbourhoods who were confused with the new system, and teach them how to properly separate their waste.

It was a great success, says Choi: “People became much more aware of their cleaning habits, or lack thereof. But the introduction of fining people also helped. People who were littering received fines, and the people who notified the appropriate authorities received 80 per cent of that fine.”

Old habits die hard

Interestingly businesses like restaurants and shops became much more conscious in how to deal with their waste and how to keep their streets clean. In fact the introduction of fines had the biggest impact on private businesses.

Much of the daily waste is being recycled. Just to give an idea: in 2015 6,501 tons of waste was recycled each day, which is about 68 per cent of the total volume. In that same year about 2,218 tons was burned in five incineration plants, built around Seoul city. The remaining 718 tons of waste went to landfill.

Choi explains how a Resource Circulation Act must ensure people are becoming more aware of keeping the city clean, and tackling some of the environmental issues relating to processing household waste. There are several challenges to overcome. Choi: “We need many more incineration plants which turn waste into useful energy. But the issue is many densely populated areas don’t like to see this type of plants in their area, which is what we call a ‘not in my back yard’ principle.”

Meanwhile local municipalities in Seoul are working hard to convince citizens of the use of decreasing the total volume of waste in their houses and in the streets of Seoul. Professor Seo: “In the beginning there was not enough knowledge and consciousness among people what recyclable waste was, and how you had to recycle and clean it.

To increase urgency and involve people the city government started training programmes for citizens to teach them. How we can sort waste inside our houses, how we recognise waste that can be recycled, these simple questions.” At the same time the city government, together with the national government, demanded manufacturers provide information about the possibility to recycle their packaging on labels.

Collection of waste

Currently private companies are responsible for dealing with the collection and processing of waste in Seoul city, whereas the city government is responsible for keeping the streets and public places clean. Recyclables are being collected between once and twice a week.

Collecting waste largely depends on one’s living situation. For instance large apartment complexes tend to have one central location where rubbish can be separated. Depending on the local volume of waste a company comes to collect either twice a week, or every day. Companies are flexible in their approach.

Jae Young Kim, professor in waste management at Seoul National University, foresees problems for small-scale houses and condominiums, in not so populated areas, when it comes to the way waste is collected. Contrary to how rubbish is collected on large apartment complexes, there are no containers and rubbish bags available where different waste streams can be separated.

“In practice rubbish is now often placed in one bag and the private companies responsible for collecting and processing it need to separate it. This not only takes a lot of their time, the value of the potentially recyclable rubbish is wasted.”

In response to this issue the government has introduced the Recycling Station Project. Citizens of Seoul go to these large-scale recycling stations where they can separate their waste with the help of so-called rubbish managers. A study found that in 2010 57.2 per cent of the waste that people planned to throw away could be reused. Currently 112 recycling stations are operational.

The city government says that it has helped to reduce the total volume of waste in those areas by 20 per cent. More importantly it has led to a decrease of polluting rubbish collection points spread across the city, thereby keeping the city cleaner.


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