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Monday, August 1, 2016

Stop Trashing Korea

Haeundae Beach, courtesy of the Korea Times

A recent photo of Busan's famous Haeundae Beach awash in trash left me aghast and deeply saddened. My friends know that I love my second home, Korea. But as Korea continues to urbanize and modernize, the collective habit of impulsively leaving trash anywhere, anytime, must be addressed. In many places you simply cannot find a trash bin. Unseemly piles of litter grow on corners, next to poles, almost anywhere along Korea's streets. 

In my Korean neighborhood, trash piles up around a clothing donation box creating unsightly and unsafe conditions for children who play nearby
For reasons no one can quite agree on, many Koreans litter 
blithefully, as if someone else is going to come along and pick up after them. A number of people say it's due to the near universal absence of trash bins. Koreans, like folks in many other countries, must pay for municipal garbage bags which they use to dispose of trash at home. A popular belief is that left on their own, Koreans stuff these public trash bins with their household trash to save what amounts to a few dimes. In response, municipal officials avoid placing these bins in public places.

Wood, glass, refuse of all kinds, pile up in a children's park
in a Korean residential neighborhood

In our brave new world of high octane terrorism, the widespread availability of trash bins takes on new meaning. In Singapore, for example, the belief was that trash cans could house Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and as a result, bins were removed to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks. Singaporeans, it seems, have readily learned to carry their trash. Their streets remain remarkably clean.

So too in Japan. I have walked in cities there for hours without seeing litter, even as much as a cigarette butt, along that country's streets. And yet, there are few garbage bins. What makes Singaporeans and the Japanese so different from Koreans when it comes to keeping their public spaces free of litter?

We have seen Koreans "step up" before in support of their country. During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when their economy was collapsing before their eyes, Koreans dug deep to proudly save their country. As reported by the BBC, "It's an extraordinary sight: South Koreans queuing for hours to donate their best-loved treasures in a gesture of support for their beleaguered economy." Most Koreans willingly donated their precious gold jewelry in the form of wedding rings, athletic medals and trophies and even gold "luck keys," a traditional present given on the opening of a new business or a 60th birthday--all to be melted into gold bars. Amazingly, ten tons of gold was collected during only the first 2-days of the campaign. All this to pay back loans granted to Korea by the International Monetary Fund. 

Understandably, Koreans want their country to be taken as a serious international tourist destination. Seoul is one of the world's most fascinating cities. Busan, and the ancient capital city of Gyeong-ju, rival their oft visited Japanese counterparts, Osaka and Kyoto. But streets and other public places lined with trash seriously erode realization of that vision.

South Korea will soon play host to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Surely, there can be no better time, or reason, for a national initiative to make Korea litter free. If Koreans could save their country from financial ruin, they can certainly save it from ruination by trash. It's time to stop trashing Korea! To my Korean friends I say, you can do better!
SooHorang, Mascot for the 2018 Winter Olympics,
Pyeongchang, South Korea