If you’re living in Seoul, you can’t avoid recycling. It’s a part of the Korean lifestyle and the sooner you get adjusted to the system, the less stressful it’s going to be. Today, I’m giving you a crash course on Korean restrooms and recycling, two essential guides to your new Korean lifestyle!
If you can’t read Korean, you might not notice the signs in bathrooms that tell you not to throw the toilet paper in the toilet. Coming from the United States, where it’s common knowledge to throw any toilet paper into the toilet, I was shocked and confused. In Seoul, a lot of buildings have very weak plumbing systems and flushing the toilet paper would likely cause major clogging and plumbing problems. No one’s denying it’s unsanitary but you definitely don’t want to be the poor sap that clogs the toilet. So, just throw your used toilet paper in the trash can and be on your way.
Toilets vs. Squat Toilets
If you’re not familiar with squat toilets, you’ll be surprised to see so many in Seoul. While normal sit-down toilets still dominate the public restrooms, many have a good ratio of squat toilets. And just as many people use both. If you feel uncomfortable using one, the good news is that there is almost always a toilet available in places where there are squat toilets (for what I’ve seen). But, a sit-down toilet might not always be available in smaller/older buildings.
Soap on a Stick
Something I found strange when I got to Seoul was the soap on a stick. Many times in public restrooms, you’ll see these babies in the place of the usual soap push dispensers. Everyone uses these and even though people say soap can’t get dirty, I was wary of using it at first. But “when in Rome”, right?
Koreans are serious about recycling. Most likely, no matter where you’re throwing trash, you’ll have to separate it. At my goshiwon, we separate by two categories: plastics/recyclables and then waste. But, recycling in Korea can get as complicated as separating your food waste, paper, plastic, glass, cans depending on where you’re staying. If you’re at a cafe or in a restaurant, you’ll usually be separating plastic, food waste (for restaurants), liquid waste (for cafes) and then the rest (most likely paper). There are often English words or illustrations to tell you where to put what. If there aren’t and you can’t read Hangul, just watch someone and do what they do!
If you’re in the subway station, there’s most likely a trashcan nearby but you’ll have to be on the lookout. They usually separate plastics and paper.
When I stayed at an apartment complex on my last trip to Seoul, we had to separate our food waste in bags that are specific to our district as well as separate our paper, plastic, etc. It was a hassle but after a while, you get used to it and you definitely don’t want the locals side-eyeing you for being lazy.
If you’re staying at a guesthouse or goshiwon or somewhere foreigner friendly, it’ll be less complicated as everything will be probably be explained by the owner/landlord in English.
More permanent living spaces like neighborhoods or apartment buildings are more strict and might have people monitoring the recycling system. For more details on what is considered recyclable and specifics on types of bags to use, visit this website.
What to do with your trash on the street?
Something you’ll quickly noticed that there is a huge lack of trash cans on the streets and in subway systems. But if you keep walking, sooner or later you’ll see either huge bags of trash on the ground or a recycling box where you can separate your plastic and waste trash. People usually just drop their finished coffee cups into the random piles/bags and go on their way.
I know it’s strange and confusing at first but you’ll get a hang of it. Recycling in Seoul is tough but it’s important and necessary, so consider it doing your part in the community and separate your plastics!