Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Habits of Waste

When my grandmother stayed with us she used to drive my mom crazy. She had trouble with the stairs, so she’d sleep in the library on the ground floor, near the kitchen and powder room. In her obsession to conserve, she never closed the door when she went to the bathroom (so she wouldn’t have to turn on the light, thereby conserving electricity) and she didn’t flush after peeing (to conserve water). My mom would yell after her, “We have guests for goodness sakes! At least close the door!”

My father-in-law is not quite that bad (though he also tends to leave the door open and neglect flushing), and he drives me crazy every time he comes over, pointing out that “That light has more bulbs and uses more electricity than the other one, so don’t use it.” He cuts their trash up into small pieces so they can fit more in each garbage bag, and he will eat spoiled food rather than throw it away. He’ll park in the first spot he comes to because he doesn’t want to waste gas.

I get annoyed by all these things, but perhaps behind that annoyance is a sense of guilt. These are people who have been trained by war and poverty to save, to conserve, to prize the efficient and proper use of things. The next generation -- my mom’s generation -- prizes convenience and efficiency. My mom doesn’t recycle because she has so little to recycle, and she throws out the trash every day, even if the bag isn’t full, because she doesn’t like the smell. She parks in the same spot at the mall every time so she doesn’t forget where her car is. She’ll ask for an extra paper cup so she doesn’t burn her hand.

We are creatures of habit, our daily activities shaping small acts of waste which accumulate in the earth invisibly, like the dark matter pair of our visible accumulation of money and goods. Living in Korea has helped shaped my awareness of my wastes in small ways; living here has helped point my mind towards waste rather than just convenience.

I have been meaning to blog about recycling here for a while, and made a mental note that others beat me to it. Seoul Man and Here in Korea both have descriptions of recycling here as well as pictures of the recycling areas in their buildings. I won’t repeat what they say except to sum up that we recycle far more here than in the States. I would be curious if anyone knows of an article about what happens to everything once its gone in the truck -- I know at UCLA, for instance, my informant tells me that the building cleaners just dump the recycling into the trash and take it all out together. Here, at least, different trucks come to get the cardboard, food trash, etc. The food trash is a bit of a pain to take out, and the containers stink, but just the act of recycling food makes me realize how much I waste (that and the high cost of food here -- if I allow something to spoil I feel both a pang of guilt and an economic pang as well). When I was back in the U.S. recently I felt so strange about throwing away food in the garbage. I had to make myself do it. It was (forgive the metaphor) like peeing in the ocean or something -- you’ve been trained to do things a certain way and it is hard to get past that training.

The counterpart to recycling here is the extra charge for take-out and bags. Every time I visit the supermarket, for instance, I bring my own bags or I have to pay for bags from the market. They cost very little, perhaps 50 won (5 cents) but just the idea that you have to pay makes me more likely to bring my own, more conscious of the fact that I am wasting when I don’t reuse my own bags. The plastic bags you get (if you do purchase one) are quite sturdy and will hold up for quite few shopping trips, unlike the plastic bags they give you at Safeway which barely make it home. I assume they make the plastic bags thin in the U.S. to create less waste, but what ends of up happening is people just double-bag. Anyway, if you go to Starbucks here and ask for a mug, there’s no extra charge. If you ask for a paper cup they charge you 50 won (5 cents). But if you bring your own mug they give you a 300 won discount (about 30 cents). That’s a huge discount, and one I take advantage of, especially since coffee costs so much more here.

I was working on my “ten things” printculture post, trying to imagine a utopian kind of future where people would wake up and start taking better care of the earth. What would push people to change their habits? Economic incentives and punishments, like we have in Korea, do seem to help train us to think a little bit differently about the small choices we make each day. But how far will that shift us into a sense of the toll we each take on the earth everyday? My friend Emily suggested that what we need is some sort of counter that reminds us as we are trying to decide whether to take the bus or sleep ten more minutes and drive to work, what that costs us in energy and fuel and pollution etc. (she said there’s a book that does this for food but it’s late and I don’t remember what it is called -- anyone?). But she was not optimistic about how much impact that device would have for the sleep-deprived person wanting a little more shut-eye and not seeing any immediate cost.

Anyway. Here are some of my resolutions for the new year as I train to be more like my father-in-law and grandmother:
1. turn out the lights I’m not using, turn of the power strips, turn off the computers.
2. use heat and air conditioning sparingly (this is much easier here since our apartment is small and we’re out most of the day. Our apartment gets a lot of heat from the sun during the winter and if I leave the windows open we get a good breeze in the summer.
3. Carry my mug with me as much as I can, carry my own cloth bags to the grocery store
4. We don’t have a dryer, which saves a lot of electricity. And we wear our clothes multiple times before washing them (most Koreans have indoor clothes and outdoor clothes, so you change clothes when you come home. So even though the city is dirty, you can keep the dirt and the dirty clothes for when you leave the house). People here, as far as I can tell, have no problem with wearing the same or similar clothes for days in a row. (My husband does it all the time, even in the U.S.!). Other than underwear and socks, and unless you do a lot of sweating, there’s really no reason to wash your jeans and shirts after each wearing.
5. Also following what it seems most Koreans do, we use rags to clean rather than paper towels. Kollae for the tables and haengju for the floors.
6. take public transportation. I used to never drive. But with Max getting heavier and the weather being cold I have been driving more. I need to go back to my old habits.
7. don’t let food spoil.
8. go through our clothes and toys and give away things we don’t need.

I'd love to hear more ideas. I just found the Treehugger site, but haven't really been through it yet... anyone have some ideas to share? Or more about recycling in Seoul?

Ah! I just posted this and I saw that oreneta has posted about switching off the electricity for five minutes on Feb 1st... I have to figure out what time that makes it here...


oreneta said...

Thank you for the post, and the link.

I have slipped here in some ways, after living on our boat for so long, I am pretty good about some things, but yes, that power bar, and the computer...big waste there, and the other problem we have is so many things come in single esrving packages. Uuurgh. The bags, yeah, I could do that, but then what do you use to pick up after the dog? Anyone have a suggestion, cause I'd love to get rid of all the bags.

JonAllen said...

thanks for the link :)

I love reccyling and hate waste. (It drives my wife crazy sometimes!)

I was going to add a new link the recycling leaflet that the Seoul Centre for foreigners has just launched.

It seems that the organic waste is only supposed to be stuff that they can feed to pigs, which limits what you can throw and does not seem to be a very good of doing it.

By the way, have you thought have creating an RSS feed? drop me an email and I'll walk you through it. It should take 10 or 15 mins!

Sandra said...

I had heard rumors that the food waste should be stuff that pigs can eat, but I didn't know if it was true. I wonder how many people even know that? Everyone in our building throws in old plants, eggshells, bones, and shellfish.

Jennifer Lee said...

I had heard that we're not supposed to throw away big bones (I think fish bones are ok?) but I haven't read that link that Jon sent yet. I thought that the food waste was used for fertilizer. One interesting thing about food waste is that each apartment is given a special bucket to use to keep the food waste and haul it back and forth to the recycling container. In my in-laws' building people really do use the bucket, because there's some social pressure (at least according to my mother-in-law). In my building people just use plastic bags, and there's another trash can next to the food waste bin to recycle those plastic bags.