What do you do when your trash comes back?
In Korea there are very strict trash, recycling, and food waste regulations. You have to make sure to buy the right bags for your neighborhood to throw away your trash and food waste.
There are white bags for trash and colored bags for food waste. Then you need to sort your recycling in another see through bag. If you don’t sort your trash correctly or use the wrong bags they will fine you.
I just moved to the city, so there are stricter regulations than out in the country. I knew most of the rules and thought I had been following them correctly.
But then one day I threw out my trash and it came back to me.
With a note in Korean.
“Wrong trash bags,” it said. “If you keep doing this we will report you.”
Oh no, I can’t even throw out my trash right. I thought as I took the bag inside and resorted it.
I had thrown away some plastic bags, so I thought maybe I was supposed to recycle them. I took them all out and rinsed them so I could put them in the recycle instead. I had thrown away some egg shells and chicken bones, which you aren’t supposed to put in your food waste, so I thought maybe the rules were different in Seoul.
Before rethrowing out my trash, I decided I should call the trash people and clarify what all the rules were so I could make sure I was following them right. I certainly didn’t want to get fined! I tied up the bag and resolved to call later in the week, during business hours.
After a few days, when the fruit flies started emerging from the mistake trash bag, I knew I had to act fast.
First, I called my landlord. I asked him the rules. But he told me information that was clearly wrong. He said it was perfectly fine to throw chicken bones and egg shells away in the food waste. I’m pretty sure this was not ok. I realized my landlord doesn’t live in Seoul, so maybe the rules are different out where he is.
Then I called the number on the trash bags. Except first I got the wrong number. Usually in Korea local numbers are listed without the area code, so if you try to call it you’ll end up calling a private number. I realized I’d forgotten to stick 02 in front of the number and tried again.
The man at the other end was super nice and helpful. I told him I was a foreigner and I’d made a mistake about my trash. So he helped me figure out all the rules:
- No chicken bones, seeds, or nut or egg shells in the food waste.
- Dirty plastic bags go in the trash, clean ones in the recycling.
- Throw out the recycling in a clear plastic bag, but it doesn’t have to be sorted from each other. It just has to be sorted from the trash. Paper, bottles, and plastic can all go in one bag.
It turns out I’d been following the rules correctly. I still couldn’t figure out why my trash had been returned. Finally I dug up the note in red from the recycle and read it to him.
“Oh….” he said. “You used the wrong trash bags for your area.”
I had bought them from a store down the street, but apparently they were for the other side of the street, not my side. I had to find a more “local” store and get the bags for my area. He promised to pick up the bag of trash that was in the wrong one in the meantime.
Also he told me I spoke Korean very well. I always appreciate when people compliment my Korean, especially when I’m struggling to communicate something important.
What I’ve learned is I don’t really produce all that much trash- most of my trash is actually food waste and recycling. This is good to know because it means I can start buying smaller trash bags. This is great for me because it will save me money. You pay for your “trash service” based on the size of the bags. Smaller bags, means less trash, means a lower fee.
Also it’s not enough to just throw out your trash. It’s important to throw it out in the right container.
And most importantly, even though someone hands you back your trash, it’s still trash. You didn’t make a mistake in throwing it out. Trust your instincts. You know what can be reused, and what can’t.