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Korea struggles to cope with waste crisis

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Trucks carrying waste head to a landfill in Incheon's Seo District, Sept. 1. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Trucks carrying waste head to a landfill in Incheon's Seo District, Sept. 1. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

This article is the first in a series on various environment problems, government countermeasures and expert opinions about how to solve them. ― ED.

'Authorities should change people's minds about waste facilities'

By Jun Ji-hye

Waste has long been associated with human activities, with its amount having consistently increased in parallel with economic development.

Korea is no exception. According to the Ministry of Environment, the total amount of waste produced in the country has continued to increase, with the latest figure tallied at 497,238 tons per day as of 2019. This was up 11.5 percent from 446,102 tons per day in 2018.

The ministry is planning to announce statistics for 2020 in December, and the figure is expected to have surged further, as people stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic have come to depend more on online shopping for food and daily necessities, resulting in their production of more waste from packaging and other disposable materials.



Once waste is produced, there are only two ways to dispose of it ― in a landfill or by incineration. This has inevitably raised the need to create additional landfills or build more incineration plants.

But it has been difficult for the authorities to find eligible sites, because local residents fiercely oppose the siting of such facilities in their regions.


Suwon City in Gyeonggi Province has been facing protests from residents in Yeongtong District due to its plan to renovate an incineration facility there.

The facility began operation in 2000 and has since dealt with 600 tons of waste produced in the city per day.

Suwon City plans to spend two-and-a-half years renovating the incinerator beginning in March 2022, while local residents claim that the city government has not accepted their request to relocate the facility to another region, but unilaterally pushed for the renovation.

The residents, who have held rallies in front of city hall and the incinerating facility, are even preparing to take legal action against the local government after signing a contract with a law firm, July 26, with some 2,000 residents planning to participate.

Heo Joon, an official who oversees resource recycling at Suwon City said, however, that there are no legal problems in the city government's plan to renovate the facility and that it is almost impossible to relocate it.

"It may take more than seven to eight years to relocate the facility as it should begin with work to find a new site. Renovation of the existing facility is an optimal choice for local residents, as the project will introduce advanced technologies to better reduce pollutants, compared to the old facility," Heo said. "Legal action will resolve nothing. We are willing to continue to communicate with residents to seek their understanding."

Trucks and forklifts spread out waste at a landfill in Incheon's Seo District, Sept. 6. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Trucks and forklifts spread out waste at a landfill in Incheon's Seo District, Sept. 6. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Bucheon City, Gyeonggi Province, has been facing a similar problem after announcing its plans to modernize and widen an incinerating facility in the Daejang region. The plan was aimed at handling more waste produced not only in the city, but also in nearby areas including Incheon's Bupyeong and Gyeyang districts and Seoul's Gangseo District.

The plan has been suspended due to protests from local residents.

Suncheon City in South Jeolla Province has also faced difficulties in pushing to build incinerating and recycling facilities in the city's Gusang and Geoncheon regions, due to opposition from local residents as well as those living in nearby Gwangyang City.

"The country has no choice but to secure more landfill sites or incineration plants across the country to deal with waste that has been increasing year after year," an official from the environment ministry said.

"As reducing the amount of waste is another way of coping with the waste crisis, a revision to the enforcement ordinance of the relevant law took effect on Aug. 31 to give more subsidies to local governments that have reduced the amount of waste buried or burned annually."

An official from Incheon's Jung District collects waste from Eurwangni Beach, Sept. 8. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
An official from Incheon's Jung District collects waste from Eurwangni Beach, Sept. 8. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

How to overcome opposition

Though opposition from local residents has been putting the brakes on the authorities' plans to build more waste disposal facilities, it is hard to lay all the blame on the so-called NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality of residents, because nobody would welcome the construction of potentially-hazardous facilities in their regions.

Experts said a lack of such facilities will lead to an increase in costs for handling waste, which would result in a rise in the amount of waste "fly-tipping" or abandonment.

They called on the authorities to work to change the way people think about waste disposal facilities, noting that Guri Tower and Hanam Union Park, both in Gyeonggi Province, may be excellent examples.

Guri Tower, with waste incinerators that deal with 200 tons of waste a day, has been cited as a model case of overcoming the NIMBY mentality.

The chimneys of the incinerators have been converted into observation deck and restaurant located 100 meters above ground. In addition, there are indoor pools, a sauna, and soccer and futsal fields to offer local residents an opportunity to enjoy leisure activities.

According to a Guri City official, more than 100,000 government officials and civic group members from around the world visit the tower every year.

The facility is even among nine scenic spots recommended by the city government.

An official passes by waste that is being disposed of at Union Park in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province, Sept. 13. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
An official passes by waste that is being disposed of at Union Park in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province, Sept. 13. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Union Park in the city of Hanam is another good example, as the city government was able to overcome protests from local residents by suggesting an innovative plan to bury all the waste disposal facilities ― incinerators, food waste disposal, recycling and sewage treatment ― underground as part of a modernization project.

The land covering the facilities has been transformed into a park and sports facilities for local residents, with the chimney redesigned into an observatory.

Prof. Phae Chae-gun from Seoul National University of Science and Technology
Prof. Phae Chae-gun from Seoul National University of Science and Technology
"Local residents' protest against waste disposal facilities is usually focused on concerns over the smell that could have a negative effect on the image of the region. Our facilities are all buried underground to prevent this," said Lim Goog-nam, the head of the resource circulation division at Hanam City. "Union Park is now being hailed as an eco-friendly waste disposal facility, becoming a role model for other regions as well as other countries."

Phae Chae-gun, professor of environmental engineering at Seoul National University of Science and Technology, said the authorities should promote the fact that modern waste disposal facilities are equipped with advanced technologies to prevent pollution.

"They should also work to develop those facilities into a landmark for the region, so it can be accepted by local residents more easily," Phae said. "More importantly, the authorities as well as people should pay more attention to recycling waste before sending it to landfill sites or incineration plants. We need a social atmosphere in which people prefer to use recycled products."


Jun Ji-hye jjh@koreatimes.co.kr


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