|Piles of garbage have appeared on a street in Jongno, downtown Seoul. A lack of trash cans leaves the streets of the city swamped with litter. |
/ Korea Times file
Garbage piles up due to lack of trash cans
By Baek Byung-yeul, Kwon Ji-youn
Garosugil in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, is the place to be on Friday nights. It's a shopping mecca and home to the hottest restaurants and coffee shops in Seoul. But a close look at the street reveals it's not as hip and slick as one would think.
The stores may have flashy window displays, but on street corners are piles of takeout coffee cups and stacks of flyers boasting cheap food and an endless supply of alcohol.
Worst of all, there are no trash cans in sight — the only thing that comes close to resembling one is a large orange plastic bag overflowing with flyers and cups, sitting on the side of the street in plain view.
Yamanaka, 27, an office worker from Tokyo, often finds herself at a loss when looking for a trash can when visiting Seoul on business.
"Whenever I walk along the streets of the city, I always have trouble finding garbage cans," she said.
"So many people distribute flyers to pedestrians in Seoul, and yet these people cannot discard them. It's difficult to understand why the city doesn't provide bins when the need is so apparent," she said.
Yamanaka says that this is the only thing about Seoul that she finds uncomfortable.
"I have visited many other cities for business, and it seems Seoul is one of a few with this particular problem. No one can deny that Seoul's streets are overflowing with garbage."
Yamanaka says she does not think Seoul is "one of the dirtiest cities in the world."
"I am not trying to blacken the image of Seoul. From my experience, the streets of well-known cities such as New York or London are trash-ridden. Tokyo, where I live, is not an exception. But, things are much worse here in Seoul. That is why I am just guessing that a lack of trash cans makes it dirtier."
Plastic takeout coffee cups and flyers are piled into a corner on Garosugil in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, a shopping mecca and home to Seoul's hottest restaurants. Even the hippest streets of Seoul are trash-ridden because there are not enough garbage cans. / Korea Times file
Jaide Laverty, an Australian who relocated to Seoul for work in January, was surprised at the number of people who leave their plastic cups on benches and buses.
"And it's not subtle," she said. "They see a corner where plastic cups have been stacked, and they add theirs to the pile very naturally. At first, I couldn't understand why, but then I realized, not even bus stops have trash cans nearby. At least, they're not readily visible."
Local citizens also expressed discomfort over the difficulty of finding garbage cans on the streets.
For Kim Hyun-min, a 32-year-old Seoul citizen, wandering the streets for minutes just to find a trash can is no surprise.
"Crowded or not, every street in the city suffers from a lack of garbage cans. People have no choice but to dump their rubbish on the road or carry it home," Kim said.
"Everywhere in the city including secluded spots, flower beds and the middle of road are engulfed in chewing gum, cigarette butts, flyers, empty cans and more. It's disgusting."
He pointed out that this isn't the only problem.
"Even if I could find a garbage can, I have to sometimes forgo throwing away my trash as it is already full to the brim."
"I don't know the reason, but as more and more coffee shops spring up all over the city, it has become harder to find an empty trash can," he added.
According to a survey conducted by the Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, 175 of 310 respondents admitted to having disposed of trash illegally on the street. Of these, 114 stated a lack of trash cans as the reason for this.
In contrast, Singapore, famous for its clean streets, has a trash can situated every 20 meters. New Zealand has garbage bins set aside just for paper and talking trash cans, powered by solar cells, keep Berlin clean. In Chicago, they have solar-powered trash compactors.
The number of trash cans in Seoul decreased from 7,600 in 1995 to 4,700 in 2013 since the implementation of the volume-rate garbage disposal system.
Under this policy, Seoul citizens are compelled to pay for the waste they have produced by weight in a bid to reduce waste production and increase the amount of recyclables.
As a result, household waste production drastically reduced from 1.33 kilograms per person per month in 1994 to 1.03 in 2004 and the percentage of total waste volume recycled has also significantly increased from 15.4 percent in 1994 to 57.8 percent in 2007, according to data from the Ministry of Environment.
"I understand that some people discard their personal waste into public trash cans so that they pay less for the garbage they produce," said Byun Soo-ah, a 51-year-old housewife living in Jamsil, southern Seoul.
"But reducing the number of trash cans on the streets has created a whole new problem in that people have to either carry their trash around all day, or leave it in the streets."
In 2000, when people first began to complain, Seoul city officials promised they would increase the number of trash cans to 7,000 by 2009, making sure that each was located just 230 meters away from another. In 2010, the number remained at 4,972.
They also said in November 2013 that they were looking into the possibility of increasing the number of trash cans on Seoul streets where large transient populations live. They have largely blamed the increase of street trash and the decrease in the number garbage cans on a lack of civic pride.
"Now that discarding trash costs money, the amount disposed has decreased significantly since the volume-rate disposal system was implemented," said an official at the city's Climate and Environment Headquarters.
"We implemented the system because so many Seoulites dispose of their trash illegally to avoid extra costs."
"But we do realize that people have been complaining about how small the number is, currently around 4,400. Where they are needed, such as major tourist attractions, we have been working to station as many as possible," she said.
"For instance, if the city holds large-scale events, we try to provide more trash cans. As of now, they're located at bus stops and train stations, and we're making an effort to increase the number steadily," she added.