I was in my friend’s apartment, and we had just finished a snack. Without conscious thought, I began stuffing all of the wrappers into my pockets, as though I would need them later like some lost and homesick sparrow, to help build my nest. “Uh, dude?” my friend pointed out. “I have a garbage can.” He pointed to its location, and it took me a second to connect what he was even saying: I hadn’t even noticed stuffing away the garbage furtively into hidey-holes in my clothing. It never even struck me to seek out some receptacle where I might dispose of such things. It has become my second nature to ferret it all away.
In Korea, the garbage process goes like this: waste is separated into regular waste, an enormous host of subcategories of recyclables, and food waste. The murky middle zone of reusable products are disposed of in various ways: at some places, enormous mega-bins are established with exactly 762 different compartments in which to sort and categorize your refuse. At my building, the strategy is to basically fling all of your things at one specific tree at the back of the building, from the smallest plastic apple sack to hulking, water-logged couches. And also to store all the cardboard in the sub-basement so the cardboard-collecting old lady with the wheelbarrow and the 90° hunch in her back can more easily shuffle it all away, back through the sands of time.
Regular garbage and food waste both need to be put in bags. Government mandated bags, covered in lengthy volumes of Korean text, one assumes, telling you all the things you could stuff into such a particular garbage bag, and what you cannot. Wrappers. Old bolts of cloth. Dead turtles. Dented and splintered wrought iron armor. The Holy Grail, if you grew tired of it.
In Korea, you need to purchase these government issued garbage bags for your waste. The money is not much, and and there are dangers if you try to dispose of your crap improperly. Placing your garbage in the wrong location or in the wrong bag will summon forth a flock of elderly Koreans, seemingly issuing from the shadows so that they might berate you for your callous and idiotic behaviour. Further still, you will earn the great displeasure of your landlords, and you may even curry a lawsuit directed at you. Garbage is serious. So you buy the bags.
But many people do not want to pay the money for such things, because they like paying for other things with that particular money. If there was some place in public where they might stuff all of their refuse, they will almost certainly do that, and never have to pay the tax-man. And that means: there are not many garbage bins anywhere in Korea, lest people simply dump all of their house-garbage into the public-garbage spots and evade the system.
If you buy a coffee at a coffee shop, it is far, far better to finish your beverage indoors, because in the dark, mysterious world beyond, there is no place for your empty container to go. If you get something with any sort of wrapping on it, you had better leave it as it is until you are safely at home or in a workplace with abundant places to put your scraps. Gum and water bottles and old dead pens and anything you might no longer have use for must stay with you until you get to a place with a garbage bin, and the only place likely to have one is your house.
If you are lucky, you may stumble across a garbage pile, like that of my building. Suddenly and without warning in the streets you may stumble across a festering pile of junk, consisting mostly of the scraps from restaurants or abandoned piles of street-fliers. They are sites where the rules and mores of society are abandoned, where littering and, one assumes, murder and arson and prostitution and orphan-swapping, are tolerated, looked away from. You can scurry up to the perimeter of the filth and stuff your refuse into the blob, so long as you are crafty and agile about it.. As strange as it is to yearn for random mountains of garbage, these too are truly rare.
The rest of the time you must store your trash on your person.
There is something so inelegant and disturbing about carrying your garbage around with you that I have trouble describing it. Whether stuffed into your pockets so that every time you reach for your wallet you must dig through layers of detritus, or lining the insides of your bag and obscuring the things you actually need or, most horrifically, held in your hand limply, stupidly, your garbage stays with you. It is like a weight being held on your shoulders, your own carbon footprint being planted directly into your face. You feel at once like a caveman, forever trailing a large pile of buffalo corpse behind him, searching desperately for a viable corpse pile (you try to find a good simile).
The few times where one finds a public garbage can are an enormous bastion of solace. Suddenly you can clear out all of your pockets at once, clearing out days of refuse and forgotten crap buried in the depths of this or that bag. While walking the grounds of my friend Tony’s university, we were both stunned by the sheer number and density of nearby garbage bags and bins and recycling containers. It seemed a preposterous luxury, one we could barely even comprehend. With our drinks in hand, we wouldn’t have to huddle around at a garbage can until we had finished so we wouldn’t be carrying them all day: we could trust that another would be waiting for us down the path. We were free.
I never knew what garbage cans could mean to me until they were no longer around.