Trash in South Korea

I have a love hate relationship with South Korea’s trash system

Back in the states, I was that guy who refused to use cling wrap and plastic bags because I was worried about the planet. I would inconvenience myself constantly in a half-hearted attempt to help out. I still am that guy but I wish there was an easier way to be Captain Planet. South Korea’s trash and recycling program has proven to me that there is a way to give every citizen the ability to easily recycle their trash instead of throwing it out. But the system has it’s flaws which may be exacerbating the problem rather than helping it.

I noticed Korea’s trash problem from the moment we landed in at Osan Airbase and hopped on a bus to Yongsan. After the initial shock of watching our bus driver blow through stop signs and ignore red lights, I noticed a pattern out of junk and civilization outside.

Mountains of metal scrap-> beauty boutique -> convenience store -> rolls of tattered plastic and lifeless remains of greenhouses ->gas station and car wash -> piles of junk and debris cleared from rice paddys -> shopping mall and restaurants etc. This pattern kept up until we got on the highway to Seoul.

I have a confession to make. Secretly, I loved the messiness and the chaos. Why?! It was that moment, in a stuffy bus where the driver ignored our pleas to turn the heat down (he didn’t speak a lick of English), that I realized how much I hated feeling responsible for the turtle in the soda can ring or the giant trash ring in the Pacific or for every dolphin caught in a fishing net. Every time I turn around in the states I’m being told how I could better to not waste and to conserve and I didn’t know how draining it was until I saw the garbage piled up down the road from a restaurant. The first time I had a shower in South Korea, I almost cried. There was no water saver shower head. My hair was wet, lathered and rinsed in under a minute. I had never had such a satisfying shower and when I get back to the states I’m buying a super soaker for a shower head. After 30 years of conservation oppression, I felt free! This doesn’t change the fact that I still want to help out where I can and I was looking forward to figuring out why South Korea has so many piles of junk everywhere.


Large and Small White Government Trash Bag. Standard American Black Trash Bag to compare sizes.

My first adventure into the world of the Korean trash system did not go well. I received a copy of a copy of  “How to recycle in Korea” from the housing office and after reading the single sheet of paper, I still had no clue what I was supposed to do. After asking around, I learned where to buy the special Korean trash bags at the commissary and I started throwing things away and separating recycling like I would in the states. I found out that I was doing something wrong when I dropped off my first Hefty sized garbage bag to the community disposal site and everyone else had no trash at all. One person was throwing out an extremely small version of my trash bag, I didn’t know they came in smaller sizes than. Why did I have so much trash compared to them? First piece of advice when moving to a foreign country; Do as the locals do. I quickly learned that I could recycle more and trash less than in the states.

Did you ever take that field trip as a kid (or in my case with the kids during a homeschool trip) to the recycling center and all of the workers talked about how much they hated plastic bags because they jammed the machines? Not only does South Korea accept plastic bags, but also cling wrap, styrofoam, snack wrappers, candy wrappers, etc. Most food is composted and many clothing items are recycled. In addition, batteries, flourescent bulbs and other dangerous materials have a special disposal area. The amount of items that stay out of the landfills is very impressive and like most things in South Korea, CCTV cameras monitor the disposal areas to ensure compliance. If you live in an apartment complex, there may be someone there to watch that everything is being recycled properly.

So if South Korea has one of the most amazing recycling programs I’ve ever seen, why is there trash everywhere?

What it comes down to, is the system is very very strict, expensive, time consuming and smelly. Not everyone takes the time to do it properly and I can’t blame them.


If it has a recycle symbol then recycle it. Almost every food packaging bought in Korea, not on base, can be recycled. Many plastic items like toys and clothes hangars cannot be recycled.

All recycling needs to be washed out and flattened. This is something most Americans are used to so it’s not too bad. Recycling can be taken out all week long but only in the evenings after the sun has set. The exact times and days are printed on each bag in English. Our bins are a block away from the house so let me tell you how I did’t want to walk in the freezing cold at night during the winter with armloads of recycling and various bags of compost and trash. Most Koreans take their recycling out everyday but I wasn’t prepared for the icey Siberian winds that come in from the North so our recycling tended to pile up. I’m a big wimp.

In Pyeongtaek-si, compost must be placed in orange compost bags. These bags are relatively cheap, around 10-20 cents each and they come in many sizes. They can be bought at any grocery or convenience store. However, it’s an ongoing puzzle to balance which size bag is needed for the days meals versus how many days a family can stand the smell. The bigger the bag, the less of a mess there is in getting everything into it. But then a family needs to hide the bag in a backroom or the freezer until it fills up. Or they can sacrifice the few cents it was to buy the bag and send it out half empty. Smaller bags fill up faster but can be a pain to fill without making a mess everywhere. Watermelons and pineapples are a nightmare.


Evil Orange Compost bags. They come in even bigger sizes. Gallon Ziploc bag for comparison.

On a side note, I am confused as to why the South Korean government has given compost bags a cost, no matter how small. You can find plenty of articles on how amazing the food waste system is in South Korea but any kind of cost is punishing the homecook. South Koreans eat out all the time and I get Oooh’s and Ahhh’s when I tell anyone that I can cook. Now that there is less food waste from the average Korean, plastic usage has escalated from all of the takeout and instant noodles. As a family, we eat out much more than we did in the states. It’s cheap and I don’t have to worry about composting any of those leftovers that I let sit in the fridge for too long.

The government issued white trash bags are quit expensive in South Korea but this encourages a pay as you go model. Trash bags can cost 50 cents to over a dollar but if a family recycles they can spend a few dollars a month on trash bags. The removal of bulk items require special stickers that your realtor can get for you.

There are very few public trash cans available in South Korea in an attempt to limit how much trash people are sneaking out of their homes. This means there is no place to put empty soda cans or food wrappers when walking around town. The easiest answer is to set it down and walk away, which creates a serious problem. The city of Pyeongtaek is well aware of the issue and I have seen blue public trash bags being tied up to trees and benches all around town. This is a big step for the government to accept that public access is necessary for a cleaner community.

The CCTV camera is supposed to prevent people from abusing the system but when I look in the recycle bins I find trash, food and recycling all over the place. It seems the majority of people do the right thing while a few just don’t care. The CCTV camera is supposed to catch those who are blatantly abusing the system but it can only punish those trying to use the bins. It cannot catch the people who are opting to dump their trash out behind my house in the fields to avoid the mounting costs.

I love the intentions of the South Korea recycling and trash program.

I have never recycled so much and had so little trash, I put out just one small grocery bag of trash per week and it feels great. This is what I’ve always wanted to do back in the states but there were too many rules on what is and isn’t allowed. The compost bags drive me nutters and I wish I could take it out everyday and dump it in a bin rather than dealing with the orange bags. This system is going to have growing pains and I don’t think the government realizes that it is pushing people to cook less at home and to eat out more, which may be increasing waste rather than preventing it. Read here to see how prices for compost bags are going up.


This label does not specify glass or plastic. See what everyone else does if the labels are unclear.

Garbage1 Garbage2 Garbage5

Recycling and Trash in offpost housing near Camp Humphreys

  • Most offpost housing will have a community location to drop off trash and recycling. These locations usually have a CCTV camera.


    Trash sites may look different in each area.

  • Watch what others do – A sure fire way to learn how to recycle in your area is to watch the locals.
  • Buy the White trash bags or Orange compost bags locally – If you’ve moved here from another town in Korea, their bags will not work. Local bags only. There are bags available at the commissary but they cost more and there are less sizes available.
  • Trash has to be taken out on weekday evenings after the sun has gone down– I see people putting trash out during all hours of the day/ the weekend but the trash bags say when it is allowed. It is in English as well. If you are walking around the AK plaza in Pyeongtaek, you may see electronic signs reminding citizens when to take out their trash.
  • The recycle bins may or may not be labeled – Any labels will be in Korean. Determine if you actually need to separate before trying to translate the hangerl. No one in my area does, so do as the locals do!


    Clearly labeled but no one actually separates.

  • Compost goes in Orange bags – Any food, meat or vegetable, goes into the orange bag. Items that do not compost well go into the trash. Most bones, clam shells, egg shells and fruit pits do not compost.
  • Loose Recyclables go in the recyclable bins – Anything with the recycle symbol can be put into recycling. Also, any packaging from items bought in South Korea are recyclable.
    • Candy wrappers, snack wrappers, chip bags, icecream wrappers etc
    • Cardboard / paper
    • Glass
    • Styrofoam
    • Cling wrap, plastic bags
    • Plastic from packaging
    • Lightbulbs
    • Batteries
    • Cotton clothing, sneakers, book bags
  • Cannot be recycled – If it didn’t come with food in it, it probably goes in the trash. Many items from the commissary come in non-recyclable packaging and wrappers
    • Certain plastics – Coat Hangers, toys, phones etc
    • Plastic coated paper -papercups/ plates, milk cartons from the commisarry
    • Glass bakeware, cosmetic bottles etc
    • Pillows, bedding
    • Wrappers and packaging without a recycle symbol
    • Metals used to hold toxic materials, paints or oils
    • Other items with toxic chemicals like mercury batteries or flourescent bulbs – There may be a special box off to the side for these items
  • Trash in the White Bags
    • Non-Recyclable items
    • Dirty items that cannot or are not worth cleaning – Paper towels, bathroom garbage etc.
    • DO NOT PUT COMPOST IN THE TRASH – if it’s noticeable that compost is going into the trash, you might get a visit from a government official or the garbage truck will refuse to take your trash and it will sit there until the problem is fixed.
  • Large/ Bulky Items – These items will need a special sticker before the garbage men will haul it away. If it is a useful item, feel free to put it next to the trash for a day to see if anyone picks it up and takes it for you. Otherwise, ask your realtor to buy a sticker for you.


Please visit Korea4Expats to learn more about garbage disposal in South Korea.


Always Watching.


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    • Su on May 30, 2017 at 4:07 am
    • Reply

    Hello! I really like your post!
    I manage the website of ToTo realty near camp humphreys.

    Do you mind if I update this post link at our website?
    I will just put the link not your post itself.

      • Sig on May 30, 2017 at 6:50 am
      • Reply

      Yes, you are more than welcome to make a link for this post. Let me know if you see any errors in it or if it needs an update. Thank you!

    • John on January 19, 2018 at 7:05 am
    • Reply

    Really accurate piece. I was wondering if I could publish it on HUB Pro News, a new South Korean news app that just launched? I know the piece is a couple of years old but still a solid piece.

      • Sig on February 2, 2018 at 1:38 am
      • Reply

      Sure, that’d be great. Thanks for reading!

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