Olympic Gold Threatens to Bury South Korea in Trash

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By Elaine Ramirez

Flags are flying festively across the South Korean cities hosting the Olympic Winter Games, but what foreign tourists descending on the region won’t see are trash bins.

And that’s a problem for the host cities where locals are used to stacking their trash and recyclables in front of stores. South Korea’s unique system is likely to befuddle the millions of visitors descending on the games.

“It’s quite messy. Although there have been regulations, wind has been blowing trash from elsewhere,” said Yoon Jeong-jin, owner of a cafe near the Olympic opening ceremony stadium on a main street in Pyeongchang.

It is the first time Pyeongchang, a two-bank town with a nearby ski resort that brings a seasonal economic boost, will see this many people at once. Hyundai Research Institute predicts the Olympics will bring 350,000 foreign and 2 million domestic visitors to Pyeongchang, a city of 40,000 people; Jeongseon, a neighboring town of 39,000; and Gangneung, a city of 200,000.

Organizers have pledged to expand recycling facilities throughout the region so that none of the waste will go to landfills.

Stores Bear the Brunt

The Olympic committee will handle the waste management within the venues’ controlled areas, while the rest is left to Gangwon Province, home to all the host cities. But it’s up to individual businesses—most of them mom-and-pop shops in the rural towns—for maintaining clean storefronts and paying for the disposal of any rubbish left there by passersby.

South Korea’s unique waste scheme taxes trash bags for businesses and households in order to encourage recycling and reduce trash generation. The system caused a wave of illegal trash dumping in public areas, and the government began slashing the number of public trash cans. As of 2015, Pyeongchang requires businesses and residents to label their trash with their name and address, which it hopes will reduce waste by 35 percent, according to a 2016 news report.

Kim Jin-soo, head of Gangwon Province’s landscape department, said the waste management team is installing 70 recycling bins and 70 small trash bins across two of the host cities—the mountain town Pyeongchang and larger coastal city Gangneung—and adding 1 billion won ($916,600) to the waste management budget. Regular waste management cost 4.98 billion ($2.7 million) in 2016, according to Pyeongchang county data.

According to Kim, the extra funds will be spent on additional waste management workers, more waste treatment, and cleaning up the litter that has accumulated in Pyeongchang, an agricultural area. To manage and separate the collected waste, Gangwon has built additional management facilities in each host city capable of processing 8 to 30 tons of waste per day, where waste will be separated for recycling or dumping, Kim said.

However, the host region doesn’t plan on adding foreign-language signage to help visitors navigate the system.

“We don’t have any plans to educate or promote Korea’s trash system to foreign visitors as they will be busy sightseeing and won’t be paying much attention to the trash system. We have so many beautiful places to visit here,” Kim said.

The waste will be picked up every evening between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., “so in the morning, you’ll see a clean road, without any trash,” Kim said.

Waste ‘Frenzy’ Predicted

But having pickups only once a day is concerning for such a large event, Bae Wookeun of Hanyang University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering said.

“Trash will be generated at an intensive rate. Usually during events, so much trash is generated that I don’t believe one pickup per day would be enough to cover the additional generation of trash,” Bae said. He recommended trash pickups at least two to three times a day.

“But ideally, at such an event, trash has to be picked up consistently,” Bae said. “They have to go in circles and manage the waste bins. The trash bins…. It’ll go into a frenzy.”

Businesses are being told to hold on to their trash until the designated evening disposal time during the games, said Yoon, the cafe owner.

“It would be better with trash cans on the street. Without them, we’ll be having serious problems. I guess the visitors will be littering on the street as there are no trash cans,” she said.

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