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[INTERVIEW] The garbage warrior

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Environmental activist Hong Da-gyeong / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Environmental activist Hong Da-gyeong / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Environmental activist finds 40 illegal waste dumping sites, reveals evidence online

By Ko Dong-hwan

The wildest job for environmental activist Hong Da-gyeong currently is hunting for illegal waste dumping sites in Korea, as most of them are hidden. Spending hours searching for clues online and using tips from her friends that lead to their locations are just parts of the job. The task can be life-threatening, as she sometimes encounters dumpers who do not want their garbage to be found. Some of the sites are run by criminal syndicates. Nevertheless, she wants to continue on her quest to inform the public as much as possible about the seriousness of this environmental issue ― as the country now faces a rapidly increasing, enormous accumulation of waste, while it has only limited space and time to deal with it.

Locating illegal dumping sites ― which are mounds because they are literally small mountains of heaped mixed waste ― is never easy. First, municipal government officers never give out information to civilians because, according to Hong, they worry that if the public were to find out about the waste, it would hurt their images. So it has been up to her to find the sites on her own.

"I have dug into online news stories, realtors' websites and online forums for landowners who were tricked by garbage dumpers into renting out their lands for illegal dumping, for photos, videos or even a single online comment left by a visitor that might be able to help me locate those dumping sites," Hong, 25, told The Korea Times. "I then cross-referenced and combined what I got to pinpoint their exact locations. Sometimes I got lucky. There was a large dumping site inside a factory in Cheonan. I located it by cross-referencing what I had learned from related news articles with street views from an online map on Naver."

She has also been tipped off by another illicit garbage dump hunter, who is older and much more experienced, on the locations of garbage dumping sites nationwide.

"So far, I have located about 40 illegal garbage dumping sites nationwide. The majority of them are in Gyeonggi Province. There are also many in North Gyeongsang Province and Cheonan. I have visited about 10 of them to shoot video of the sites. When I contacted the landowners for approval to get inside, some of them wouldn't allow me in. But I went ahead and went in anyway," said Hong.

One of the biggest garbage dumping sites she saw was in Uiseong County's Danmil District in North Gyeongsang Province. The mountain of 192,000 tons of waste illegally dumped there since 2016 was so huge that she could see it from afar and had no difficulty determining its location. It was even reported by American TV broadcaster CNN in March 2019, prompting local reporters here to call it an "international disgrace."

When she visited the place with popular comedian Kim Gu-ra to film an episode of his TV show together, she saw a man at a distance who waved at her to come over to him several times. She thought he must be one of the gangsters responsible for dumping the waste. "I didn't go to him because I thought he must know I had been nosing around garbage dumping sites all over the country and might have wanted to hurt me," Hong said. "I believe my presence might have been revealed to those people because I have been rummaging around for those mounds. I fear I might receive a death threat someday. And I never go to illegal dumping sites alone. Those places give me the creeps."

The Ministry of Environment and local governments stepped up to clear the mound in Uiseong. It was cleared by the end of 2020. About 130,000 tons of the waste were reused as fuel for cement factories, and the rest was buried in landfills or incinerated.

The famous garbage mountain in Danmil District, Uiseong County, North Gyeongsang Province, was cleared in December 2020. Courtesy of North Gyeongsang Provincial Government
The famous garbage mountain in Danmil District, Uiseong County, North Gyeongsang Province, was cleared in December 2020. Courtesy of North Gyeongsang Provincial Government

The other garbage dumping sites that have especially shocked Hong were in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province. In a video she uploaded on
her YouTube channel "JJB" on July 22, she toured with her friends the inside of a factory that was filled with huge mounds of waste. Contrary to the inside, the outside of the factory was kept neat and clean. No one would have wondered about what was going on inside.

"They crammed all kinds of garbage in there," said Hong ― from plastic bottles to food cans, iron wires, fishing nets and traffic cones, just to name just a few. "The dumpers rented the factory by telling the factory owner that they would run a recycling business here. Instead, they started secretly dumping waste there without telling the owner."

Illicit rings of garbage dumpers, sometimes involving gangsters, collect waste from construction sites or other garbage-generating sites at cheaper rates than legally operating firms. They then rent unused patches of land or factories and, without telling the owners, dump the collected waste there.

At another garbage mound in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, Hong even directed the filming of a music video there to raise public awareness about the issue. With 10 million won ($8,700) crowd-funded via online platform Kakao, she produced "Enlighten" in 2019. "The landowner gave us approval to shoot the video," Hong said. "It took five months to search for where to shoot the video, and months for the other preparatory planning and lyrics composition. The shooting was then done in two days."

The Cheonan city government told The Korea Times that they will remove the garbage mounds in the factory in the city's Seobuk District in August of this year. Seong Ong-seop, a cleaning administrative bureau official from the government, said that the government has ordered the factory owner and the dumpers three times to clear the mounds and cover the cost, but they haven't done so.

The dumpers, who registered themselves as a junkyard operator, began in March 2020 stashing waste in the factory they had rented. The waste has amounted to about 4,000 tons. The owner, refusing to pay the cost himself, filed a lawsuit against the city government.

"If the court decides that the owner is not responsible for paying the cost, we will charge the entire cost to the dumpers," Seong said. "Until the mounds are cleared, we won't know how much the cost will be."

Rented factories in Asan where illegal waste totaling about 14,000 tons was secretly dumped behind the factory owners' backs have also triggered police investigations. An Asan city government official said that the Southern Gyeonggi District Police Agency discovered dumping sites in four factories in the city districts of Seonjang, Injoo, Bogo and Yeongil.

The official said in an interview that they had been tipped off by a state-owned corporation ― the Korea Environment Corporation ― that the dump sites appear to have been made by the same group. "We and the police force together nabbed the dumpers at the scene. Now, once the investigation is over, we will decide when to clear the mounds and to whom we will charge the garbage removal costs."

Lessons from New Zealand, the Philippines

Hong first learned there was an environmental vigilante inside her when she visited Kerikeri in the northern part of New Zealand in 2016. She went there on a working holiday visa to volunteer for a non-governmental organization that was building a school there for environmental education.

While working as a waitress at a local restaurant there for a year that catered to workers building the school, she was curious to find that a chef at the restaurant mixed food waste together with other daily waste. After witnessing it 10 times, she could no longer stay silent and asked the chef why he wasn't separating them.

"He told me that he didn't have to because in that country it was unnecessary, that all wastes would be buried in a landfill or thrown into the ocean anyway," Hong said. "In a country renowned for its beautiful natural scenery, it was shocking to see what the chef was doing with the waste. I thought, 'This isn't right.'"

Hong Da-gyeong, left, interviews Cheryl Distor, a university student and an environmental activist in the Philippines, during her visit to Baguio in 2019. Screenshot from YouTube
Hong Da-gyeong, left, interviews Cheryl Distor, a university student and an environmental activist in the Philippines, during her visit to Baguio in 2019. Screenshot from YouTube

Three years later, she went to Baguio in the Philippines to visit what was known as a "garbage town" there. She learned there that people in the city seemed to litter in the streets freely, while cash-strapped kids living in the town (surrounded by heaps of garbage, Hong said) had to sort this garbage with their bare hands and a knife, and then sell the waste for a meager amount of money.

"Most of the garbage seemed to come from the Europe, although some I discovered was also from Korea," Hong said. "It was strange to see waste from Korea there, after the Philippines in 2018 started rejecting shipments of waste from Korea that was unrecyclable."

Starting as an activist in 2017 and becoming a member of the Earth Citizen Movement Alliance (a local environmental group in Korea), Hong has been promoting herself on YouTube and via social media while collecting waste from under the sea (also known as "swimpicking") and off the streets ("plogging"), educating people on how to recycle waste, and hunting for more garbage mountains, which national authorities presume number over 235 across the country.

She believes that Korea is under the grim threat of waste, especially during the social distancing guidelines due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which have encouraged many to stay at home while ordering in more food and packaged products than ever, leading to a massive overall accumulation of waste.

Hong said that raising public awareness of the need to reduce waste and about recycling has never been more important. She added that she cannot do it by herself; in fact, all consumers need to join in the campaign, and they can do so by urging companies to produce more products with no or less packaging, and that can be recycled more conveniently.

"You can see that SPAM cans on shelves no longer come with their yellow plastic caps. Consumers urged their makers to stop making the caps, and now they are gone, saving 200,000 tons of plastic waste per year," Hong said. Other products that urgently require such consumer activism, according to her, include the double caps on the bottles of hangover-treating drinks, cosmetic products labeled "other," and pumps on shampoo containers, all of which are unrecyclable. "We need to raise our voices," she said.

Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr

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