Seoul adds mountains ― made of trash

JoongAng Daily. March 15, 2004
By Wohn Dong-hee 
When people put their bags of garbage on the street, they drop them and forget them. But for Kim Bu-won, there are a few other important considerations.
Mr. Kim, 37, is in his third year as a sanitation worker for the Jongno district government, making the rounds of the narrow back alleys of
Seoul’s Hyoja-dong neighborhood, near the Blue House residence of the president.
“It would be nice if people were more considerate about putting out the trash,” Mr. Kim says. “Sometimes at home, I feel upset when my wife throws out milk cartons or boxes without flattening them out. She seems to forget that it is her husband who does that very task for hundreds of other people every night.”

Working from 9 p.m. until about 8 a.m., Mr. Kim covers several blocks, piling up trash bags on the main road so they can be collected by trucks later in the morning. He pulls a large plywood cart and wears rubber gloves while sorting out recyclable items such as bottles and paper.
The work typically has been performed by older people, such as Mr. Kim’s father-in-law. But more recently, rising unemployment has encouraged young and able-bodied workers such as Mr. Kim to do the job.

With about 10 million people living in Seoul and another 10 million in surrounding Gyeonggi province, nearly half of Korea’s population is squeezed into the nation’s capital area. That means a lot of garbage, and major problems in disposing of it.
In 20 to 30 years, when Seoul’s landfill is exhausted, the city may be wading in trash unless steps are taken soon, environmental specialists say.

The city government, aware of the seriousness of trash disposal, has begun to take action. It is expected to spend 2.1 trillion won ($1.7 billion) of its total 14 trillion won budget this year for environmental purposes, including 102 billion won just on trash removal.
It also has tough regulations on garbage disposal in the city. Food and other nonrecyclable trash must be placed inside designated plastic bags, which can be bought from certain neighborhood grocery stores. The profit from these bags pays for the collection process and the fees paid to the landfill where the trash is sent.
Seoul recycles about half of its garbage. Bottles, paper, plastic and other reusable materials make their way into hundreds of public and private recycling plants. Food waste is burned or turned into compost to be used as fertilizer. The problem is that most of the remaining trash ― about 13,500 tons each day ― is buried.

“At this rate, in two or three decades Seoul will have nowhere to send its trash, which now goes to a landfill in Incheon, Gyeonggi province,” Seoul city waste management division official Kang Kum-soo said.
Most of the trash that is now buried could be burned.
Seoul has three incinerators, which were built in the early 1990s, but their operating rate is less than 26 percent because the residents of the districts in which the incinerators are located will not allow trash from other districts to be burned there.
“Burning trash may reduce the volume, but toxic gases are emitted into the air,” says Kim Chang-su, 54, a resident of the Gangnam area who lives near an incinerator. “The government conducts research on the harmful effects of living close to incinerators, but [studies] are only based on two or three years of observance. Ill effects may show up 10 or 15 years later,” he says.

The city government is building another incinerator in Mapo-gu, which is slated to open in April next year. Before construction began, the local governments and residents of three districts agreed that Mapo-gu will accept trash from Yongsan-gu and Jung-gu, for a certain fee, which will be returned to the local residents in the form of free electricity or through social welfare projects, such as community centers. But this will solve only a small part of Seoul’s trash dilemma.
According to the environment ministry, more stringent laws to protect the air, water and land have only been enacted in the last 10 years. The Nanjido Landfill in Seoul, which was built in 1978 and which now has been turned into a park, was more of a dump than an organized landfill, where all types of trash, from industrial waste to food, were buried. When the Sudokwon Landfill in Incheon was built in 1992, however, more care was taken to provide an environmentally friendly facility.

The Sudokwon Landfill holds one of the keys to Seoul’s future waste disposal ability. Located near the Incheon International Airport, it is a massive site of 6.2 million pyeong (5,130 acres). It is operated by the Sudokwon Landfill Site Management Corporation, a central government-run agency, and accepts trash from Seoul, Incheon and other regions of Gyeonggi province.

Seoul’s trash, however, accounts for more than half of the total. On the highway leading to the airport from Seoul there is an exit for the Sudokwon Landfill. A long line of green and black trucks rumble along the dusty road, which passes by miles of abandoned farmland, several cemeteries and finally an apartment complex before reaching the landfill.

At the entrance is a tollgate where trucks are checked in and weighed. They are weighed again before they leave, so that the amount of trash each truck brings in can be accurately calculated. The next checkpoint is the investigation gate, where nine long rods are inserted into random sections of the trash to take samples. Trucks containing material, such as industrial waste, that does not meet the landfill’s regulations are rejected. The trash is then dumped into a designated area, where it is leveled and compacted by a bulldozer, and covered with 50 centimeters (19 inches) of dirt. The trucks “shower” and leave the landfill, free of their load.

The landfill area is like a small city. The smell of trash is evident at the burial sight itself, but other areas appear rather bucolic. A creek bordering one section of the landfill that empties into the Yellow Sea is full of ducks and other birds.
Within the complex are plants, power generators and other facilities that process the trash and produce energy from waste gas.
Of the four landfill sites available in the complex, one is already full and has trees growing on it. The second site, which is in use, looks like the surface of another planet because of the mounds of dirt and pipes jutting out of it. It is big enough to hold several soccer stadiums, and there is only a faint scent of sewage. The pipes vent gas produced by the rotting trash.

The gas that comes out of the landfill is collected to generate energy. Currently, 9.8 megawatts of electricity are provided to nearby residents, and a power generator to be built by 2006 will provide 50 megawatts, enough to light every house on Jeju Island.
Although the landfill will be full in a couple of decades, officials say that if a large incinerator is built, it will be unnecessary to use the remaining space. But a state-of-the-art incinerator is still on the drawing board, stalled by the opposition of nearby residents because of the air pollution they claim would result from its operation.

“It’s just plain selfishness,” says Kim Ki-hee, secretary-general of a committee of residents who live near the landfill. “If people in Seoul built their own incinerators, they wouldn’t have to send their garbage all the way out here to us.”
Landfill corporation officials, however, think there may be other reasons for the opposition. “We receive a fee for every truck that comes in. It all adds up to about 120 billion won per year, and 10 percent of that is wired directly into the bank account of the residents’ committee,” the agency’s public relations assistant manager, Kim Hyeon-ju, says. Residents within 500 meters of the facility receive up to 20 million won ($17,000) a year in cash from the committee, which can be someone’s annual wage, he says. But the incinerator would be located farther away and, according to environmentalists, no residential areas fall within its range, he adds.

Under the law, residents living within a radius of two kilometers (1.2 miles) from any waste disposal facilities may receive cash compensation from the government, with the amount varying depending on the resident’s distance from the facility and length of residence. Those in a range of two to four kilometers generally do not receive cash, but the money is used mostly to provide energy or to build social welfare facilities. If the proposed incinerator is built, residents will not receive any compensation.

“People don’t know that incinerators create less pollution than landfills,” says Mr. Kim. “After the garbage is burned, the ash is compressed into building blocks. Everything is recycled.”
But some environmental groups oppose the plan.
“It’s a positive thing that the government is taking more interest in the environmental aspects of waste disposal, but burning it isn’t the solution,” says Oh Bit-na, a worker at Waste21, a nonprofit environmental group. “International organizations such as the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives are frowning on incinerators as well. We should focus more on reducing trash and increasing recycling.”

Chi Myo-hwan has been doing his part. The 76-year-old retired Korean War veteran spends his time collecting newspapers, bottles and other recyclable materials, which he sells to buy bottles of soju. “It’s only about 3,000 to 5,000 won a day, but that helps me buy a drink or smoke, and since I’m bored, it helps pass the time,” he says. Shrapnel embedded in his body makes it difficult for him to move, but after five years most of the neighborhood knows him and helps him recycle.

Meanwhile, the government has ambitious plans for turning the Sudokwon Landfill into Dream Park ― a multipurpose area that would include a golf course, ecological park, flower gardens and reservoir. Preparations are being made to plant 10 million trees on the exhausted landfill and turn it into an 18-hole golf course.

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