How my 2.5-week trip to South Korea changed my recycling habits

My nights there were spent unboxing the day’s purchases and sorting the packaging into different bins.

Chloe Tham

Chooses to watch the same three movies in rotation instead of catching a new one.

Published: 25 April 2023, 10:39 AM

One thing I did not expect to bring back home from my trip to Korea other than goods from the Hongdae and Apgujeong shopping streets, was the habit of recycling.

I had been recycling previously, but it was not something I would do regularly until I visited Korea in March.

Before leaving Singapore, I had conducted research for travel tips and information like general etiquette. Being prepared was a priority for me.

Multiple applications were downloaded on my phone to make sure I knew how to make my way around. Buying insurance and prepaid data roaming plans were also arranged weeks before I flew off to Korea.

However, I was not prepared to see a string of messages from my Airbnb host on the day of our arrival, which consisted of detailed instructions for recycling in the building that my friends and I were residing in.

She had indicated, in English, that the yellow bags that were provided for us were meant for food waste, while white bags were meant for plastic, vinyl, paper, glass and cans.


A picture that I received from my Korean Airbnb host, who provided recycling bags with English instructions and also drew out the bins to make it easier for us to identify the recycling area. PHOTO CREDIT: AIRBNB/ARIN


Next to the entrance of the loft were three separate bins, labelled ‘vinyl’, ‘plastic’ and ‘paper’ to differentiate them from one another. Another bin meant for general trash was placed next to the staircase.

Another bag, meant for food waste, was placed by our kitchen sink. It was filled mostly with bread that had gone stale or any leftovers from the food that we brought back to eat.

None of us knew the difference between vinyl and plastic, and we came to discover that vinyl was a brittle type of plastic that was more difficult to recycle, which is why we needed to separate both of them. Making quick Google searches helped us to figure out how to sort out the different materials.

As the trip progressed, we would even do occasional check-ins with one another to make sure we were throwing our recyclables correctly into their designated bins.

The bags started to fill up until it was time to bring them to the recycling area. Sitting in the area were four large bins side-by-side, which looked exactly like what was depicted in our Airbnb host’s drawings.

While we were studying the recyclables that were already in the bin to determine the rightful spots for our items, the security guard on duty at the building came over to help. He told us how each item should be sorted.

That was when I realised that Koreans regarded recycling as an important practice. Comparing these few encounters to what I have witnessed in Singapore previously, I realised that it was a routine for the locals in Korea.

Throughout the rest of the trip, it became a regular practice to sort out my recyclables every night. As rubbish bins are not commonly placed along the streets of Korea, trash and recyclable packaging were kept in my coat pockets until I reached home.

This habit was carried with me once I returned back to Singapore. Although there is a lack of space in my home to place multiple bins for the different recyclables, I managed to find another way to segregate them.

Large plastic bags are used to store the materials separately, and I hang it freely from the hooks attached to the door of the storage room.

When the bags are filled up, the recyclables are brought down and placed into the big blue recycling bins situated at every housing estate. The bags are then reused for the next batch of recyclables.

This way, the space in my home is utilised and recyclables are sorted out more efficiently.

With the recent introduction of Bloobox, a recycling initiative introduced by the National Environment Agency (NEA) for the Recycle Right campaign, sorting out waste should be significantly simplified.

A partition divider included with the box allows for the separation of materials, making it easier to collect and deposit your recyclables in the large blue bin.


Bloobox machines are situated at designated bus interchanges and community clubs. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/CHLOE THAM


I also believe that the practice of thrifting or upcycling is a good step to take for waste reduction.

Personally, I opt to thrift as it offers affordability and a wide range of styles and sizes. Keeping informed of the environmental consequences brought in by purchasing from fast fashion retailers also motivates me to avoid overconsumption.

Although I do not practise upcycling as much as I would like to, it is something worth exploring in the future.

Upcycling is the process of taking something you do not use anymore, and turning it into something else with a new function.

For example, using old and unwanted clothes can be cut up and used as a tablecloth, or repurposed into a different article of clothing. Jeans can be turned into skirts or shorts, and t-shirts can be used as headbands.

Aside from using different bags to separate my recyclables at home now, my friends and I have taken small extra steps to continue recycling, such as bringing our plastic bubble tea cups or takeout boxes home to rinse out and recycle.

Although it may not seem like it’s much now, incorporating these small steps into our daily routines can help to contribute a significant amount to waste reduction in the long run.

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