Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

recycling in South Korea

South Korea has taken bold steps to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Unlike America where all the recycled goods are heaped into one bin, recycling in South Korea is a pretty involved process that includes separating aluminum from glass, batteries from Styrofoam and even vinyl bags from plastic ones. The recycling center opposite the security station in my apartment complex. It is neat, orderly and plainly marked in both English and Korean.

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Recycling in South Korea

Where are the Trash Cans?

It’s hard talking about trash in South Korea without mentioning that trash can sightings are like the search for Bigfoot. Your cousin heard a friend of his girlfriend’s uncle once heard some guy see one. They don’t exist. When I arrived, I carried my trash in my purse and threw it away when I got home. Now I do like the Sicilians and toss it in great big piles on the street.

trash-can2 Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

Where are the Trash Cans?

Over the last two years, I have begun to see trash cans, but only a few of them. During political unrest, the government removed trash cans 30 years ago because they were a weapon of choice for protestors and failed to put them back. That’s just one of the exciting things I’ve learned about recycling in South Korea since I got here.

trash-collector Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

Recycling in South Korea is Complicated

Trash Bag Types

The first time I took my trash to the recycle bin, and security rejected my hefty bag full of trash like I was Lebron James, I must admit I was confused. He lifted the bin and showed me the kind of bag I needed to use. I nodded, put my hefty bag into the back of the Jeep, and dumped it into a dumpster on-post.

I asked a few people where I got the bags, however, no one seemed to know what I was talking about. They loaded their trash into the back of their cars and dumped it into the dumpsters on-post as well. I consider myself a steward of the earth and want to be more responsible than that.

When you move in, the guards will come and watch you—I mean to assist you—in distributing your recyclables in the correct bins and containers whether you want them to or not. So I called Mr. Kim, my realtor, and he gave me the low down. The next time I went to the recycling area, however, I was prepared to dunk if I had to..

Miso-trash-bag Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

General Waste Trash Bags

This is a general-use trash bag, and it comes in several different sizes. The 50-liter bag fits the standard American kitchen trash can. You can only use authorized bags to dispose of your trash. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to use hefty kitchen bags. In addition, the bags are much more expensive than hefty bags too.

I generally use 50-liter and 100-liter bags, which are priced at 1,100Won and 2,220Won, respectively. Unfortunately, there isn’t a discount for buying them in bulk either.

General waste includes everything not considered food, It also includes things like toilet paper you cannot flush down the toilet, sanitary napkins, diapers, and clothes.

Yes, some people live in old buildings where they have to put their soiled toilet paper in a trash can. However, that sounds gross, doesn’t it? Well, shit happens.

Miso-diaper-genie Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

Food Waste

This is the food waste garbage bag. They are used for anything edible by man or animal, i.e. cooked and uncooked meat, fruit rinds, raw eggs, and vegetables. It is blue-green and biodegradable. On my kitchen counter, I use a diaper genie-like pail to dispose of leftover food that cannot fit or be flushed down the small opening in the drain.

As a matter of fact, food waste is stored in containers like the ones above, activated by a card given to each tenant upon move-in.

food-waste-recepticles Your Ultimate Guide to Recycling in South Korea

Food Waste Exceptions

However, there are exceptions for food waste such as eggshells, crustacean shells (Crab, Lobster, Shrimp, etc), clam shells, onion and garlic paper-like skin, animal bones, tea bags, or tea leaves. These things can be included in the general waste trash bags.

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Some trash is instinctive because they will have the recycle trademark on the packaging. These include, but aren’t limited to, glass, plastic, styrofoam, paper, cardboard, aluminum, light bulbs, batteries, and vinyl convenience bags. Recepticals are supplied for their disposal.

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Oversized Garbage

As the name implies, oversized garbage is trash too large to fit in conventional garbage bags. For example, refrigerators, induction cookers, TVs, air conditioners, gas ranges, and big furniture like bed mattresses, sofas, desks, coffee tables, microwaves, and washing machines must be disposed of separately.

Oversized refuse must be left in a designated area of the recycling area. Removal is not free; it is based on the type and size of the item.

Where to Buy Trash Bags

You can buy both bags at convenience stores, such as E-Mart and Home Plus. In addition to your neighborhood corner stores. They are usually under the counter if you don’t see them displayed. They are sold in bundles of 10 or 20, but you can also purchase them one at a time. I also bought my diaper genie bin at Home Plus. And you should find the food waste bags in the same aisle.

A Few Helpful Tips

1. Even though you can buy them at convenience stores. I would not suggest you do that. At my Seven Eleven, a 50l and 100l general waste trash bag are way more expensive for convenience at 1,400Won and 2,440, respectively. That’s $1.25 and $2.12 for one trash bag.

2. A little Korean goes a long way.

3. Separate your plastic, glass, paper, etc… in your apartment. Trust me, its a lot easier to dump entire bags of stuff into the bins. And the security guards, who aren’t doing much, tend to “help” when they see they don’t have to get their hands dirty.

4. Take out your food waste DAILY. If not you may find you have gnats in your diaper genie.

5. Keep two trash cans. One is lined with a hefty bag for recycles and one is lined with the Korean trash bag.

6. Use a hairnet-like cover (sold at Daiso) in the sink strainer, so you can cut down on drain maintenance.

7. Ask questions if you don’t understand because you can be fined for non-compliance.

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  1. Sofia

    Thank you so much for your information. It looks good in your information. Thanks again for sharing your information. t’s a little tough to get used to when you’re new but hey, it’s really helpful!

  2. Stephanie Holmes

    I live in Sweden and we have a similar system here. BUT it’s only in some areas. Where my parents live they have to sort out the trash by plastic, paper, leftover food, metal and so on.

    But where I live, just 20 minutes away you can if you want to, but it’s not required. And if you cheat with the trash the garbagemen will not give a damn, haha.

    One thing I don’t get through, WHY can’t you use trash bags from a different area?

    The fun post didn’t know there was so much to say about garbage.

  3. Stephenie - Blended Life Happy Wife

    Such a detailed recycling program. The US could take some lessons from South Korea

  4. Honey and Fox

    Very informative! Wow, this is kind of jarring. Glad we know better now. After watching a whole bunch of Korean dramas, we don’t think of the little things when it comes to desiring to move to South Korea.

  5. Kiyshia

    I never thought I would a post about recycling so interesting. Recycling here in the UK I would say is pretty simple. You have done a fantastic job writing all this step by step and all the hints and tips! Thanks for sharing.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Guess what Kiyshia, I never thought I would have written an article about recycling because I found it interesting. lol, thanks for your comments, its nice to know I’m not the only one reading my posts.

  6. Shevy

    Wow Korea is really strict about recycling. Back in my country anything goes where garbage is concerned. How reckless I know! But I had a similar experience to you living in Panama. Seeing all these different bins for different types of trash and yeah they are written in Spanish so could imagine how confusing it was for me at first. But I support recycling and believe it should be a worldwide thing.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I’ve known westerners to not participate and find ways around recycling. Its only a pain when its really cold outside and you have to sort the trash, thats why I sort it in my apartment first.

  7. Enricoh Alfonzo

    Argggg i hate the recyling/garbage system in my country. they’re always going on strikes so our bins end up over flowing then we have these fools who come pick up garbage in a horse and cart. i really feel bad for those horses and plus they end up just dumping all that refuse at a dump site and not deposing of it properly. love that you’re promoting these amazing tips and recyling system

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Wow Enrico, what country do you live in? I love that so many people from different countries, lifestyle and cultures come here and read my adventures and share their own.

  8. Nay

    This is such an interesting post. Our recycling here is pretty simple as it all goes in one bin, but this (although more complicated) seems a much better system.

  9. Amber Myers

    Wow, you learn something new every day. I seriously had no idea trash was like this in Korea. I’ll have to ask my husband if he dealt with this. I doubt it, because he stayed in dorms on base when he was there for a year.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Amber if he was on base he didn’t have to recycle to this degree, its only when you live on the economy. I wish they would incorporate many of the locals ideas on recycling.

  10. Kyomi Carpenter

    I learned something new! Didn’t know I could put egg shells, bones, and shells in the waste trash. I will be going to find my “diaper genie” this weekend!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Haha, yup. Think what can’t be eaten, that’s what you can put in the general trash. I bought my diaper genie at Homeplus, the biodegradeable bags are right next to them.

  11. Chloe

    I can’t believe they don’t have rubbish bins, that would seem crazy to me! We have them every few metres here in Australia haha. Sounds like an interesting way to recycle rubbish though- it would take me some time to get used to!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Yes, it is, hopefully it will have the anticipated outcome. Thanks for stopping by and come back often, I appreciate your support.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Hi Nadine, thanks. I hoped that would come across with this blog. Please come back often and share with your like minded friends.

  12. Kelly

    I’ll have to ask my son about this. He spent a year in South Korea, and he told me it was hard to find trash cans when he went off post, but I didn’t hear about all the particulars with trash and recycling. Much is different in South Korea than it is in the U.S., but I liked hearing how some of it has an old-fashioned feel.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Haha, that’s one of the first things you’ll notice that there aren’t any trash cans. If he lived on post he wouldn’t have had to recycle, they don’t require you too follow Korean standards there, which I think is sad.

  13. Jim

    Wow. I am seriously impressed by the recyling system! I wonder how our culture would be if we had adopted this mentality. Thank you for shaing.

  14. Danielle

    Wow! This is pretty interesting. Even though it seems difficult to dump your trash, especially if you don’t know the rules, it seems like maybe this is all better for the environment in general. Everything piece of “trash” has it’s designated place and there’s no mixing it up!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Nope, as my friends here all laughed at this when I posted it on Facebook. Because someone is always watching to make sure you do it right. I appreciated it because they forced me to learn it and its just the language barrier that makes it “seem” mean spirited. Its not, they have been so helpful.

  15. Renee

    Wow! Who would’ve thought the recycling system could be so complicated! We do our best to recycle to but in an easier way. Food waste goes to the animals. Paper and cardboard we burn. Everything else goes to the dump.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Its a learning curve, but a necessary one because the country is so small and will definitely run out of space without a plan.

  16. GiGi Eats

    South Korea is totally on my list of places to travel… Not first, but on there. It’s interesting to see the different practices countries have – we are so engrossed with “our norm”…

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Trust me, I lived here once and this is my husbands third time… it wasn’t at the top of my list either. And living here the last two years, its not my favorite out of the countries I’ve visited here in Asia either. But then a I write that, I realized there is a lot that I love about SK despite that.

  17. Laurie Albanos

    I wouldn’t have thought an article about garbage could be so interesting but it really was. You think about all sorts of things being different as you travel around the world but this is a new one for me.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Haha, thats quite the compliment when you think about it. I thought it was interesting share for people who don’t live here as well as those that are new to the area to help them figure it out faster than I did.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Thats awesome. Its like anything else if you get kids started on things… eating veggies, ch♡res, language… they don’t think its hard later.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Wow, where do you live that they don’t do any recycling? I didn’t think there was a place on earth that didn’t have a basic recycling plan.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      They really have no choice, its a small country, with 50,000,000 people, they will run out of space eventually without thoughtful planning.

  18. kassi

    We are huge recyclers. It is still hard to believe that we don’t have more recycling options outside the home – we go on lots of hikes and adventures in our small neck of the woods and often we are only giving traditional trash cans as options. We usually bring what we can back with us to make sure it ends up in the right spot. It’s so amazing that you were able to continue to recycle while travelling.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      We actually live here, almost two years now. And yes, even on hikes here, if you can find a trash can (I’m serious they are hard to find) they have more than just one option.

  19. David

    That’s great that you were able to find all the things you needed to do to properly recycle. I’m sure it will be worth all the effort you took in the long run.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      It took a minute, but yes, we are on board completely now. No taking trash in the backseat of my car on post. yuck!!

  20. Elizabeth O.

    I applaud them for their dedication when it comes to recycling. Very few countries have waste management plans like this. It’s a little tough to get used to when you’re new but hey, it’s really helpful!

    1. duffelbagspouse

      Its a very small country, I think it was a necessary task for them. But knowing politics, it was one that seems to garner a lot of support no matter what they are.

  21. Alaina Bullock

    Wow. I never really thought about the trash situation in other countries. Here, in the US, trashcans are beyond common. Loved reading about all of the different requirements for recycling, too.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I saw one the other day and I wanted to take a picture, so I did. I just can’t find it. I may have to walk down and take another one. lol

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I won’t disagree with that. It takes some time to get it down, but its a wonderful opportunity to lower your carbon footprint.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I agree completely, most people do. It’s the degree to what we recycle and who pays for it is the question most cities are facing.

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