The Trash Conundrum

“Throwing your trash away here can be so confusing!”


I’ll give some people the benefit of the doubt for this one. I won’t lie, it can be confusing to use the Korean trash/recycling system if you’re from parts of the world that could stand to be as selective as Korea is (the US for example). I used to have 3 bins at my home in the US: general waste, paper, plastics/cans. At my first apartment in Korea, I had to separate my waste into 5 different categories: food waste, general waste, plastics, glass, and paper. Some things you’d think belong in a recyclable category actually go to general waste and vice versa.

For the majority of us in Korea, our general waste area looks something like this:


Image borrowed from the Korea Times

It basically looks like a lot going on without a lot of guidance. I don’t live in the area of this picture but based off of my knowledge now I can probably guess that the clear/white bags are general trash, blue is recyclables of some kind, the yellow may be food waste. But that’s the point: I don’t live there, so I don’t need to know. I only live in my neighborhood so I know I’m most knowledgeable about where I live.

Korea has one of the most advanced waste collection systems. I used to live along a major road in my city and the trash bags were different colors on opposite sides of the road because that specific road was the boundary between two different communities. One side was white bags, the other was green bags.

When you first move into your apartment, have your coworker or your landlord lay out the trash system for you. It differs at each apartment building and maybe even differs from across the road. My first landlady had a very simplified waste separation area that was built out of cinder blocks more or less. My current landlord has a corner of the parking lot where trash goes and a much more relaxed separation system because this neighborhood’s trash collectors separate recyclables for us.

PRO TIP: If you need to collect food waste in a bucket of some kind, freeze your waste in your freezer until you have enough to throw away all at one time. Freezing your waste makes the smell go away.


Where can I buy my general waste trash bags?

You can get them at a lot of places! My school actually mass orders general trash bags for our rooms and since my house is within the zip code of my school it uses the same general trash bag. I’ve taken a few (after asking) when I needed some after a holiday party. Otherwise, Homeplus or E-Mart (chain supermarkets), neighborhood marts, and convenience stores sells general trash bags as well. You’ll want to ask for “쓰레기 봉투” (sseu-rae-gi bong-tu). One of the first Korean words I’d suggest you learn is the word for trash (쓰레기) because it could save you a lot of time and confusion later.

PRO TIP: Since the majority of supermarkets use the trash bags as their plastic bags to carry groceries in, either buy your groceries purely at supermarkets or buy a whole bundle at one time. They come in either 10 bags or 20 bags in a bundle. Saves you a lot of time and money in the long run to buy trash bags in bulk.


Do I actually get fined for sorting my trash incorrectly?

I’ve never been fined and I know there’s a CCTV camera watching me sort my waste outside the front of my building. Maybe in some parts of Seoul you’d be fined for sorting your trash incorrectly but I don’t get fined in Daegu. Basically if it falls into one of these categories and has the recycling symbol on it, you should feel safe to go ahead and include it with your recycling:


Image borrowed from this site.

What about cardboard?

Toss it outside! You’ll find that (sadly) older Koreans roam around the streets with loads of cardboard boxes to turn in to the recycling centers. Even if you haven’t broken the box down, don’t worry they’ll take it.


What do I do about small appliances that don’t work anymore?

In my case, I have had an air filter from the US be shorted out here in Korea. I asked around to the online communities and found that small appliances, just like cardboard, can be set out with the other recyclables. Someone will eventually come along and collect it and you won’t get in trouble with anyone over it.


“Throwing your trash away here can be so confusing!”


(If you do your research.)

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