The Challenge of Public Trash Bin Availability in Downtown Seoul: A Shift in Policy Direction

In recent times, it is not easy to find public trash bins in downtown Seoul. This is a result of a reduction in the number of trash bins as part of efforts to prevent unauthorized disposal of household waste since the implementation of the waste disposal system in 1995. However, various types of litter, such as disposable coffee cups and cigarette butts, are being indiscriminately discarded on the streets, leading to numerous complaints about inconvenience. In response to the increasing grievances, the policy direction is shifting back towards installing more trash bins.

The distance from Gangnam Station Exit 10 to Sinnonhyeon Station Exit 7 is approximately 550 meters. There are only three trash bins installed along this stretch, despite there being twelve bus stops between the two stations. Since January 2018, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has amended the regulations on safe bus operations, restricting the carrying of food waste on city buses. Consequently, people unable to find trash bins are disposing of garbage illegally in flower beds, under trees, and in alleys before boarding buses. Even in bustling commercial areas where non-bus passengers gather, the streets are suffering from the illegal dumping of trash. After a cleanup by environmental workers in the Gangnam Station area, carts were filled with various types of trash, including plastic coffee cups.

[German Traveler]

The Decline of Public Trash Bins in Downtown Seoul: A Drop of Nearly 2,000 Over the Past Three Years

Over the past three years, the number of public trash bins in the actual downtown area of Seoul has decreased by nearly 2,000. According to data submitted by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, as reported by Choi In-ho, a member of the National Assembly’s Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Committee from the Democratic Party of Korea, the count of public trash bins has continuously decreased from 6,940 in 2019 to 6,242 in 2020, 5,613 in 2021, and further down to 4,956 in 2022. As of September this year, the total has decreased by an additional 121 bins compared to last year, totaling 4,835. Specific locations show an increase in bus stops from 1,712 in 2019 to 2,926 in 2020, only to decrease again to 2,548 by September this year. Trash bins at subway station entrances decreased from 853 in 2019 to 373 this year, and road-side bins also saw a reduction from 4,375 to 1,914 during the same period.



Controversies Surrounding Public Trash Bin Policies in Seoul

The installation of public trash bins has been a contentious issue for some time. In 2012, Gangnam-gu and Seocho-gu, neighboring districts divided by Gangnam-daero in Seoul, adopted contrasting policies. While Gangnam-gu installed and maintained trash bins, Seocho-gu declared a zero-trash-bin policy. At that time, Seocho-gu argued, based on a sort of ‘broken window theory’ (the criminological theory that visible signs of crime, like broken windows, can lead to further crime and disorder), that having trash bins would make the streets more untidy and, as a result, removed all the bins. However, Seocho-gu struggled with illegal dumping of trash, and eventually, in 2016, introduced ‘Seoripul Cup,’ a recycling bin for separated collection of recyclables. This decision was driven by significant changes in the environment, particularly the widespread adoption of the coffee takeout culture.

[Seoripul Cup]

While the public trash bins in downtown Seoul continue to decrease, each district is experiencing a similar issue. As illegal dumping becomes increasingly severe in various areas, there is a growing demand to expand the number of trash bins. Some argue that having trash bins is better as it would confine litter to those areas, improving the city’s aesthetics and cleanliness.

[Current Status of Public Trash Bin Installation in Seoul City]

Given the current situation, the Seoul Metropolitan Government plans to expand the number of public trash bins to 5,500 by the end of this year, 6,500 by 2024, and further to 7,500 by 2025. The city deems it necessary to install trash bins primarily in bus stops and areas with high pedestrian traffic. To achieve this, the city is progressively seeking cooperation from local districts for the gradual expansion of installations.

[Discarded cigarette butt on the street]

Experts argue that expanding the installation of public trash bins is crucial for preventing littering on the streets and for the convenience of tourists. One significant aspect of this argument is related to tourists. Without sufficient trash bins, foreigners may not know where to dispose of their trash and might end up littering on the streets. Globally, many countries have already installed public trash bins for urban aesthetics and to address these issues.