Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Thursday, 9 June 2011 13:43 UK

South Korea's enthusiasm for recycling

A customer looks at shelves beside a girl in a shopping trolley

By Lucy Williamson
Seoul, South Korea

The green movement has taken off in South Korea but sometimes working out what and how to recycle can be a little daunting for a new arrival like me, settling in for a two-year stint as the BBC's reporter here.

Mr Bu sits in a shed at the entrance to my building.

He is not really a caretaker, nor really a security guard. In fact, I have never got around to asking him exactly what his job entails.

To be honest, I am a little nervous of him. Mr Bu is not renowned for his social skills.

But whatever his exact job title, much of his time seems to revolve around monitoring the apartment block recycling bins.

Recycling is something Mr Bu takes very seriously.

From the little window of his shed, he gets a decent view of everyone visiting the big rubber bins outside the front gate.

There are four of them. Each is for a different kind of rubbish.

That, I can just about get my head around. But there is more.

'Severe consequences'

Each apartment block has a different way of grouping the recycled rubbish and each kind of rubbish has a different kind of rubbish bag.

They all appear to be various shades of orange and white, and they are clearly labelled in Korean script.

Collecting cardboard
South Koreans have enthusiastically embraced the idea of recycling

I have only been here a month so I am not going to feel too bad that my Korean vocabulary has not yet embraced the niceties of waste management. But it is no comfort when the consequences of getting it wrong can be so severe.

A previous tenant in the apartment - a BBC colleague - told me how Mr Bu had assiduously gone through all the CCTV footage during his brief stay here, and then clipped out all the frames showing how he and his family had done it wrong.

Two things were learned from this exercise: One, that there is apparently a correct and an incorrect way to place your bag into its bin. And two, that Mr Bu is not a man to let things go.

As a Londoner, I am simply not used to people caring quite so much about recycling.

The last time I lived in the UK, my apartment did not even have a recycling system.

Tenants with a guilty conscience would occasionally trek down to the bottle bank and paper bank up the road, but there were not many.

Going 'green'

Twenty years ago, attitudes were not that different here in South Korea.

Its population and size are about the same as England's, but South Korea - now a G20 nation - got rich very fast indeed and ended up with half its population living in and around the capital, spending their new income on more and more stuff, and throwing it away.

South Korea's Incheon power station
The Incheon power plant produces electricity using methane from landfill

More than 90% of it was being dumped in landfill.

The new green regime came in almost overnight. Recycled rubbish was now collected free but families had to buy special bags for their landfill waste.

Fewer bags meant smaller shopping bills.

It seems to have worked. The amount of recycled waste increased from 15% to almost 50%.

Now the green movement seems to have a life of its own.

Government policy papers heave with environmentally friendly initiatives - "Green Growth", "Green Start" and the "Green Life Movement".

There are financial incentives for shoppers to buy green products - green mileage programmes for their manufacturers, a carbon-points scheme run by the government and support for a new concept called "eco-driving".

Correct technique

Recycling is now so ingrained that women can be seen outside the local supermarkets tearing the cardboard from their cereal packets before setting off home.

I know it is important to put the rubbish into the right bags, and to put them into the bins standing neatly and upright

And tenants of the apartment blocks here often get together at a set time each week to help each other sort out and recycle their rubbish.

Mothers and schoolchildren, the bossy aunties, and sometimes the odd husband roped in.

Perhaps that is what I need in my apartment.

Even amongst Koreans, Mr Bu seems especially committed to the recycling programme.

I have had instructions from three separate people now and I am still not entirely sure how the sytem works.

I know it is important to put the rubbish into the right bags, and to put them into the bins standing neatly and upright. I have tried.

In an effort to get off on the right foot, I have also made an effort to address Mr Bu respectfully by name - "Mr Bu" - every time I pass his post.

I thought it was working because he seemed to respond, sometimes even with a smile.

But a few days ago, he arrived at the door to my apartment, angry and upset.

It turns out he does not like being called "Mr" after all.

"Not respectful enough," he says. "Think of something else."

It could be a long two years for us both.

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Country profile: South Korea
13 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

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