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Korea vs. U.S. Recycling System

By Claire Kim and Lauren Suh


The smallest actions and incidents can influence our lives everyday to a larger degree. There is only one world we can all live in, and the nature around us is connected by all the countries all around the globe. Together, humanity must collaborate to create a better future for the new generations.


However, humans’ thoughtless and irresponsible actions are negatively affecting the Earth’s environment, causing our version of a perfect, healthy planet to evaporate faster than ever before.


Man-kind’s baneful actions have been fueling the major global issue of climate change. Throughout the years, the lack of knowledge and interest has been causing the actions and solutions to be ignored.

Why Recycle?


A major example of humans destroying Earth is not recycling properly. Though some downplay the effects of improper recycling, it is a key factor that will determine the lifespan of Earth. The most common reason for improper recycling is misplacement.


For example, non-reusable items are misplaced into recycling bins. If this occurs, recyclable products are contaminated due to products placed in incorrect bins. Contamination can prevent batches of materials from being recycled properly.


In addition to the disasters of poor recycling, even more harm is caused from the trash that isn’t recycled. Many collected products such as plastic bags and utensils are disposable, however, most usually end up being incinerated, added to the landfill, or thrown into bodies of water, especially oceans. Our landfills trap waste with little oxygen, resulting in an extended time to decompose, as well as an increase in the emission of hazardous pollutants. 


Every single country has its own problems when it comes to disposing trash. When it comes to recycling, South Korea probably has the best systems. According to “”, South Korea ranks within the top 5 best recycling countries with a recycling rate of 53.7%.


On the other hand, the U.S only has a recycling rate of 32.1%. After some first hand observations and research, we decided to investigate specific actions that are performed to create the difference in numbers and procedures.

The United States

Americans’ progressive actions taken are effective to some degree given that approximately a third of human-generated waste is being recycled. Though progress has been made, more development in regards to the U.S. recycling system will be required.


In order to reinforce a more effective system, collaboration will be needed to address the challenges. In 2021, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act was introduced into Congress.  This bill sets requirements to reduce the production of plastic, certain companies are responsible for their waste collection and sets limitations on export of plastic waste to other countries.


Incentives encourage the reduction of disposable products by setting forth a national system of refunding customers for returning single-use beverage bottles.


Several states throughout the U.S. have legislation banning plastic bags, creating more awareness regarding the climate crisis. Most stores have started to charge extra for the use of plastic grocery bags, influencing customers to bring and use their own reusable bags. 


South Korea

In Korea, the standards of recycling are set high with organized systems and strict policies. Each neighborhood is given a set of procedures to follow by the head management office of the area.

In total, all trash is divided into 3 categories:  Food waste (grapes, sauces, bread, strawberry tops, and more), general garbage (egg shells, banana peels, used paper towels and napkins, rubber bands, and more), and recyclable materials (cans, cardboard, vinyl, plastic, and more).

Food waste is the easiest to dispose of but a payment needs to be made for food waste to be properly trashed. General garbage is a bit more complicated as it is required to be thrown away in specific amounts determined by special eco-friendly bags made for disposing the garbage.


Lastly, recycling is the most complicated garbage as it has many rules and policies that need to be followed. First, properly labeling and disposing materials of the same category is a must. The measures taken are mandatory to remove the wrappings off of plastic bottles and remove the stickers as well as tape from cardboard boxes.


Mistakenly trashing things is a wrongdoing that can end up in having to pay a fine. One of the more extreme consequences from a first hand experience is having to watch a family be publicly shamed by the neighborhood’s head management office because of CCTV footage of them wrongly recycling a couch.


Due to the many required procedures for disposing trash, there are no trash cans in public. The only trash cans in South Korea are found in homes, bathrooms, and restaurants. The majority of trash in South Korea is disposed of at home.


Bathroom trash cans only allow paper towels to be disposed of. Some restaurants have customers leave all of their garbage so that the workers could properly dispose of everything.


Furthermore, it is considered normal for a restaurant to have a trash can’s opening blocked up with tape with a sign “Not a Trash Can” attached to itThe one “trash can” that is available to the public are cigar bins.  Separate areas are made so that people can smoke without bothering others and cigarette bins are well supplied near each smoking area. 

South Korea also has a continuously modified no plastic policy. Many restaurants no longer give out plastic straws and shopping malls only use disposable paper bags to pack customer’s belongings. This is the same case for some U.S. states, such as New Jersey. However, the strictest of all is probably the grocery stores.

There is absolutely no grocery store in South Korea that distributes free plastic bags along with the items bought. In the United States, for example, it is very common for there to be racks of plastic bags in the paying area. If the customer forgot to bring their personal bag, the store will charge the customer around $10 for a cloth bag. However, a customer could still request for a plastic bag as a preference.  


Overall, South Korea’s recycling and disposing waste system is made up of regulations, cooperation, consequences, and responsibilities. However, with the many conditions present in South Korea and the campaigns in the US, there is still room for further improvement.


Despite working towards recovering from the harm that has been done to our environment, there are still struggles and means of cooperation needed to advance further. Recycling is one small way that everyone can contribute to. Environmentally, recycling reduces waste, decreases pollution, and conserves natural resources.


American systems can help promote jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries. Learning the corresponding recycling symbols to the types of plastic is a small step to start but can and will lead to a giant leap for humankind.

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