The waste disposal conundrum

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The waste disposal conundrum

Hong Su-yeol
The author is the director of the Resource Recycle Consulting.

In the middle of the 2000s, I attended two public discussion sessions to listen to local residents’ opinions on plans to build waste incineration plants in their neighborhoods. I still vividly remember what happened at the time. In one event, an enraged resident jumped on the stage, broke a bottle and tried to injure himself. In another event, a resident abruptly poured fuel and attempted to set fire to his body.

Both incidents took place in front of my desk. I pretended to be calm but was frightened. As I was just a rookie activist at that time, it was too much for me to understand the rage of the residents.

My experiences were just a fraction of the countless conflicts that took place around the country over plans to build large-scale incineration plants and landfills until the mid-2000s. At that time, we built many waste treatment facilities after countless disputes. And thanks to that, we were able to dispose of garbage without headaches over the past 20 years. But now, we are facing a limit.

First, the amount of waste has skyrocketed. From 2010 till 2020, the amount increased by 150 percent. We see new types of harmful consumption that produce disposable cups, delivery food containers and packaging materials one after another, and the amount of waste grew astronomically. Although we try our best to recycle materials, the total amount of waste to be incinerated or buried still increases.

From now on, dumping waste in landfills will be banned. After the revision last year of the law, dumping waste in landfills in the capital region will be banned starting in 2026. The ban will expand to other areas starting in 2030. We have only four years left — or eight at most — to use the landfills. Unless other waste treatment facilities are built, a crisis is unavoidable.

But it is unclear if we will be able to use existing treatment facilities in the face of protests by local residents. As incineration plants in major cities, built about 20 years ago, will soon end their lifespans, it is not clear if the residents living near the plants will allow the facilities to be modified and used for more years. The timebomb is ticking for a garbage crisis. How can we resolve this problem?

First of all, the people and the regions that produce garbage must show some responsibility. They must make efforts to take care of their own trash. They cannot force residents near the existing waste treatment plants to make sacrifices when they are not enduring any inconvenience themselves.

Rather than relying on large-scale treatment plants, each region must reduce the amount of trash it produces and build recycling facilities in their own regions first. Rather than holding a campaign of empty words, each region must demonstrate its determination by acting. If it is unable to build a small treatment facility in its region, it won’t be able to persuade other regions to build massive plants and accept its trash.

It is also necessary to expand assistance to the areas near waste treatment plants. First, the plants must be built as clean, pleasant facilities as if they are public parks. Top-class education and welfare facilities also should be built in the areas.

Benefits should also be given to more residents than before. As of now, residents living within 300 meters of the incineration plant and those living within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of a landfill receive assistance. This should be expanded to offer benefits to more residents even if the support programs may differ depending on the distances.

It is also important to engage a public campaign to ease residents’ extreme fear about living near waste treatment plants. I have been living about 1-kilometer away from the largest incineration plant in Korea for 20 years, raising two children, but there was no serious impact. Treatment plants equipped with cutting-edge contamination prevention facilities are not the monsters that we often imagine.

It is understandable that the people have psychological fears about those facilities, but we must not surrender to fear. No one should fuel it for political purposes. It would be best if we did not produce waste. But once waste is produced, we must deal with it correctly. We must stay calm and find the best resolution for our community.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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