Life in a throwaway country: sustainability in Korea

After a hiatus of almost 2 years, I’m back! I’m not saying I’m back for good, but for now, I’m back. I left wonderful Italy, graduated from University, and now here I am livin’ the life in Seoul, South Korea as an English teacher… How things change!

This time, I want to talk about sustainability. There are so many Korea- related things I could talk about, but the desire to write about sustainability was the reason I reached for my laptop tonight.

I’ve been in Korea for 6 months now, but as soon as I arrived I realised that life here is very logical and convenient. Due to the fact that so much of the country was demolished during the Korean War, everything is new. That means that they built the stuff they needed, where they needed it, whilst using a system that works. This means that the subway system is efficient and the wide, straight roads are basically perfectly planned, with a timed traffic light on almost every crossing. However annoying this is for pedestrians (its not uncommon to see a pedestrian legging it from a distance to catch the lights) it keeps the traffic and pedestrians mostly happy, without favouring either one. Logical. Korea’s logic is good and it helps people’s busy day-to-day lives.

Whilst there’s convenience and logic that are good, the convenience of some things just isn’t necessary. That goes for the sheer amount of convenience stores (ironic, I know) on every block, to the 24-hour food delivery services, and everything in between. Now, I can agree that it’s handy when you fancy a kimchi stew at 4am and all you need to do is text someone to get one, however, there should also be a time where these people just sit down and chill for a second. Furthermore, taxis are so cheap and readily available because so many people rely on them, so people don’t feel the pressure to rely on public transport. Food delivery is well priced, quick and easy so who cares about the fuel emissions of thousands of delivery motorbikes? You could walk the two minutes to McDonald’s but naaah, lets get it delivered. Want to go to a club or restaurant? They won’t give you a flyer out on the street but instead they’ll just throw whole stacks of them around on the floor in an attempt to catch your attention. Well, they caught mine, for the wrong reasons.

What comes out of this culture of convenience is a knock-on effect of a throwaway culture. This is clearly shown by the people who throw leaflets around but also less explicitly. Due to the fact you can buy whatever you want, whenever you want it, people don’t cling on to things that they perhaps would if it wasn’t so easy to get it again. Simple examples of this are plastic bags and chopsticks.

In Korea when you buy something in a shop, no matter how big or small, the cashier will try to give you a plastic bag. I often carry my own bags- a habit I picked up from living in England where they charge 5p per bag- so I refuse their bag and I’m often met with a puzzled look. I have even had to physically take things out of a bag myself because they couldn’t fathom the idea that I wouldn’t want a convenient plastic bag from them. The same goes for chopsticks, which by the way, Korea, you can use more than once!

The ‘throwaway’ item that really gets to me the most is plastic coffee cups and straws. Korean people work hard. In fact, they work themselves to death, with some of the highest suicide and alcoholism rates in the world. Meanwhile, they drink coffee. The amount of coffee shops on every street in Korea still astounds me. There are the usual big name coffee shops as well as smaller chain and independent shops, but they are everywhere. And they are everywhere for a reason. I sat in a tiny independent coffee shop for 30 minutes and watched about 25 business people come in and out during that time- all taking a plastic cup and straw with them. Lets bare in mind, there are about 5 other coffee shops within a 20-metre radius of that shop- so try to imagine the footfall in all the other cafes, too. I don’t think it crosses many people’s minds here to take their own reusable cup for their coffee.

It’s such an unusual thing to take your own cup or straw to a coffee shop, that when my friend took the plastic cup and straw from the previous day back to the same shop to buy another drink, they instinctively put a new plastic straw into his freshly made coffee. It may not seem a big deal, but when you make that decision to stop your consumption of plastic straws and someone puts one in your coffee (meaning that the only place for that straw is now the trash, then landfill/the ocean), its flipping annoying. The thing is, all over the world plastic is seen as a throwaway item, when actually it lasts a lifetime. 

Long story short: I’m saddened by the way that daily life in Korea doesn’t really support a sustainable lifestyle. Koreans consume so much, creating unbelievable amounts of waste every day from coffee cups, plastic bags, food packaging (especially plastic fruit and veg boxes in supermarkets) and just generally not caring about their footprint on the earth. Thankfully, there are some good news stories emerging about the UK Government proposing to ban plastic straws and cotton buds, McDonalds ditching plastic straws for paper ones, and coffee chain Boston Tea Party are going to ban disposable cups. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, so lets get through it before we drown, choking on plastic.

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