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INTERVIEW34-year-old permaculture farmer runs zero-waste shop in Gangneung

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Lee Hye-rim, who runs the zero-waste shop,
Lee Hye-rim, who runs the zero-waste shop, "Tomorrow Market," in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim

Lee reveals why she opted for country life

By Dong Sun-hwa

GANGNEUNG, Gangwon Province ― "Are you sure you want to buy all that?"

This is the first question that the employees at "Tomorrow Market" will ask their customers, once they see them fill their shopping bags with bundles of eye-catching items ― such as bamboo toothbrushes and silicone straws ― uniquely found in this tiny yet refined shop. It sounds like the most unlikely question that a store clerk can throw, but the customers do not find it odd or weird, as they know "Tomorrow Market" encourages its visitors to join its initiatives to reduce waste and conserve resources.

Tucked inside low-rise apartment buildings in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, "Tomorrow Market" is one of the few zero-waste shops in Korea that opened its doors in April 2019. According to Lee Hye-rim, 34, who runs "Tomorrow Market" with five other friends, the shop has three main goals: to cut back on single-use plastics, to produce sustainable products and to become a "refill station" for Gangneung residents.

Zero-waste shop,
Zero-waste shop, "Tomorrow Market," located in Gangneung, Gangwon Province / Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim

"A zero-waste shop does not aim to eliminate all wastes, but it strives to get rid of them as much as possible," Lee said during an interview with The Korea Times at her shop, Monday. "As far as I know, approximately 40 percent of plastic waste is used for packaging goods, so we try to avoid packing our products whenever possible. We also make them with materials that can be used multiple times ― such as bamboo and glass ― and sell shampoos and detergent to those who bring their own containers to refill them. Sometimes, we receive ice packs or leftover plastic bags from our customers as well, so that we can hand them to local vendors who can reuse them."

Bamboo toothbrushes sold at
Bamboo toothbrushes sold at "Tomorrow Market." One toothbrush is sold for 2,000 won ($1.50), but the price goes down to 1,500 won without packaging. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim

"Tomorrow Market" makes toothpaste, shampoo and lotions with Gangneung residents too, using natural ingredients.

"Whenever we recruit people to make eco-friendly products together, we get a lot of people joining us," Lee said. "We have seen a spike in the number of environmentally conscious people following the COVID-19 pandemic, with the global health crisis triggering a surge in the volume of waste. As you know, people ate a lot of delivery foods packed in single-use plastics while staying at home."

Many of them are feeling overwhelmed by the environmental crisis these days, Lee added.

"It is November, but temperatures are unusually high and we can still see mosquitoes," she said. "Some flowers even blossomed due to this warm weather, but soon died because of a sudden fall in temperatures. Hence, more and more people are realizing that our Mother Nature is sending a danger signal to us, so they search for methods to protect our environment."

In the case of Lee, she began taking action to tackle environmental problems seven years ago after settling in Gangneung.

"My friends in Gangneung suggested I live here after seeing me wander around different places," she said with a smile. "I immediately fell in love with this place as it was surrounded by beautiful beaches and mountains. After being fascinated by these features, I naturally became more concerned about our nature."

The participants of the
The participants of the "Sigol Unni Project" work at a permaculture farm in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim

Those living in the hustle and bustle of big city life can also team up with the workers at "Tomorrow Market" if they apply for the "Sigol Unni Project" run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. "Sigol" means "the countryside" in Korean and "unni" refers to an "older sister" from the female point of view.

Launched earlier this year, this project intends to offer various ways of living in rural areas by giving people a glimpse into the rustic lives of women who have already settled there. According to Statistics Korea, the number of people who left cities to return to rural regions stood at 14,347 in 2021 ― nearly a 15-percent jump from 2020.

This year, eight teams from Sangju in North Gyeongsang Province and Seocheon in South Chungcheong Province, among others, joined the project, inviting young city women to their places. Lee and her co-workers, who all relocated to Gangneung for different reasons, were also one of the eight rural "unni" teams.

"The city women, who were aged from 19 to 39, came to Gangneung and stayed here for six days, crafting their own zero-waste products and making vegetarian meals," Lee explained, adding that they studied permaculture as well.

Permaculture ― a portmanteau of the two words, "permanent" and "agriculture" ― refers to the agricultural ecosystems that pursue sustainability, self-sufficiency and diversity.

Lee Hye-rim and her co-workers work at a permaculture farm in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim
Lee Hye-rim and her co-workers work at a permaculture farm in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim

"Farming inevitably destroys our nature, but we cannot survive without food," Lee said. "So we thought the key was to seek sustainability. We currently have two 1,000-square-meter permaculture farms where we grow plants like perennial herbs, which store carbon for microorganisms that help restore soils. When we harvest them, we keep their roots so that they become a source of nutrition for the soil. We also do not use any chemical fertilizers and try not to overproduce. In this way, we believe we can return at least something to nature."

Another characteristic that makes their farms stand out is their diversity. In their farms, a variety of crops and plants coexist. It is probably one of the few farms in Korea where a peach tree is planted together with a kiwi tree.

"Pursuing diversity is of prime importance to us, considering that it can help more microorganisms to survive and store carbon for us," she stressed. "Permaculture makes it more challenging for us to harvest sufficient crops and plants to make ends meet, but we are in the progress of learning different ways to ramp up our productivity. Beginning next year, we will also join hands with mentally challenged people to run our farms, pursuing diversity in human resources as well."

The participants of the
The participants of the "Sigol Unni Project" made their own meals using the ingredients they harvested from permaculture farms. Courtesy of Lee Hye-rim
The participants of the "Sigol Unni Project" also cooked their own meals using the ingredients they harvested from permaculture farms, Lee explained.

"They also planted diverse trees and took part in a 'plogging' program, in which they jogged while picking up trash found on beaches," she said. "Later, they shared why they were seeking to leave their cities and asked us for advice. One of them even revisited our place to get more tips about country lifestyle."

Today, one of Lee's most ambitious goals is to build a business model for those involved in permaculture.

"We want to have more common land for starting farmers," she said. "A lot of people ask us whether we can really make a living in a rural area. Honestly, all of us are still working hard to do so by juggling different side jobs. But in the days ahead, we want to demonstrate that permaculture can be a means for our sustainable future."

Dong Sun-hwa

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