[VIEWPOINT]Confessions of a waste wastrel

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[VIEWPOINT]Confessions of a waste wastrel

If you took a core sample from Nanjido, Seoul’s former landfill, the garbage mountain under what is now the World Cup Park, you’d find something with my fingerprints on it. Seoul has been my home for a long time. So imagine how embarrassing it was to discover, I’ve been violating the garbage law for years.
Each district in the city - there are 25 gu - has particular days in the week when household garbage is collected, and it is an offense to put garbage out on the wrong day. Indeed, you’re not supposed to put your trash out in daylight hours at all because the city’s thoughtful planners have arranged for collection between sunset and sunrise (6pm to 5am). That means you can toddle out in your pajamas last thing at night with the rubbish bag, and it’ll be gone by the time you let the dog out in the morning.
That’s a pretty good arrangement.
But the arrangement was news to me. Surely, there’s a mistake? I’ve been putting out my rubbish whenever the bag is full, not noticing I’m the only one on the street doing it. And you can hardly miss my garbage. What with diapers and stuff, somehow I manage one or two of those big 100-liter bags a week. Plus, of course, the newspapers and wine bottles that, as a good citizen, I put out for recycling.
But there’s no mistake. My source is Han Sang-yul, the director of Seoul City’s Waste Management Division who was a presenter at last week’s annual Town Hall Meeting for foreign residents at City Hall.
A little history: Once upon a time when the wind blew east, a rotten smell wafted over Seoul. This was a time when the city’s slogan was, appropriately, “My Seoul, Our Seoul.”
The source of the smell was Nanjido, which began life as a flat islet and grew over decades into two large hills, which are believed to be the world’s largest landfill. The two growing piles were open fills, covered every so often with a light sprinkling of dirt.
People lived there, picking out what they could for re-sale. One foreign reporter did a story on it around 1990 in which he dubbed Nanjido the “Scavenger City.”
Nanjido was closed in 1993 and the city developed an impressive plan to drain it and turn it into the park you see today. Gas from the core of the garbage pile is used to power the park’s lights.
Since 1993, waste generated in Seoul has been dumped in the Sudokwon (metropolitan) Landfill Site, a one-hour drive from downtown. And, as you can imagine, for a city of 10.4 million, there’s a lot of garbage. According to Mr. Han, every day in Seoul there are 12,000 tons of household waste, 34,000 tons of construction waste, and 2,200 tons of industrial waste.
But, back to waste management. Each gu has its own system. These are roughly the same, with the garbage collectors generally combing the streets after sunset every other day. This collection system was introduced about seven years ago.
To encourage compliance, there is a 100,000 won fine for putting the garbage out on the wrong day and at the wrong time. As you know, one of the nice things about Korea is that the law is not really enforced unless there’s some political reason to do so. Just as well because my fines would amount to about 35 million won.
A quick personal survey of foreigners revealed that I’m not the only offender. There is widespread unawareness. I’ve not checked, but I’d wager that, Songbuk-dong aside ― because residents who live there have people doing that sort of thing for them ― your major foreigner-heavy dongs, such as Pyeongchang, Hannam-dong and Itaewon, have garbage in the street all the time.
But, for this resident, there’s no comfort in numbers. The reason for my anguish is that garbage collection is something I’ve been whining about for years, as if I’m some superior alien from a romanticized non-existent advanced Western garbage heaven society, when all the time I’ve been a criminal.

* The writer is the managing director of Insight Communications Consultants, a public relations company. He is the author of “The Koreans and Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader.”

by Michael Breen
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