▲ This is where everything you buy eventually ends up Photo courtesy Ann Bush
Do you know what happens to your trash after you drop it off at your friendly neighborhood trash collection point? Yeah, neither did I. That’s why I took a tour of Jeju’s largest trash and recycling center.
I went with my dear friend and recycling-enthusiast, Ruth Minnikin, in order to dig a little deeper into garbage. Little did I know, we were biting off a lot more than we could chew.
Our first stop was the lovely Sustainable Environmental Education Center, a clean building with a colorful exhibit hall aimed at teaching groups of school children about waste processing.
Our guide, the warm and wonderful Won Chun-mi, explained how at the center they try to emphasize their mission of “3R Plus” - a spin off the old “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan .The Plus is a reminder that there’s always more we can do.
The exhibit showed materials that could be reused to make a variety of new products, like old tires for playground padding. There was also a fascinating display about how many years it takes for common products to decompose. Did you know that a diaper requires up to 5 centuries to break down?
There was also a helpful miniature of the processing center - featuring a landfill, food garbage management area, plastic sorting center, methane gas capture station, and leachate processing (the liquid waste runoff).
The center was built in 1992 and services 19 different villages in Jeju, and the Hoecheon landfill has become the largest of the eight landfills on the island.
We left the education center, and our first encounter with actual garbage was the plastics section. Imagine a warehouse filled with mountains of overflowing plastic on one end, conveyor belts going every which way on the other, and smaller rooms for manual separation throughout.
▲ The main workfloor of the recycling center Photo courtesy Ann Bush
The plant has seen a steady increase in waste - with a particularly large surge in 2015. As a result there’s so much plastic to be processed every day they can never get to it all. The surplus, therefore, keeps growing.
Because mixing different kinds of plastics is essentially unavoidable, half of the plastics are separated by machine while the remaining half must be hand processed by the 30 to 60 employees that work at the plant at any given time.
I asked how the sorting device knew which plastic went where. Won Chun-mi leaned in and smiled, “the Ballistic Machine knows everything.”
Using spectrophotometer technology, it scans materials and determines what type of plastic it is depending on how light bounces off it (I think). Once the machine determines the type of plastic, it ejects that material to the correct bin and then crushes those materials into massive cubes to be sold off to private recycling companies.
▲ This is where AI will begin their take over of the world Photo courtesy Ann Bush
The profit made from plastic waste is determined by the price of oil, since that’s what plastic is made from. In one of the main paradoxes of recycling plastic, when oil is cheap it’s actually cheaper to make products with new plastic rather than with recycled plastic, so recycled purchases diminish.
Unfortunately the long term environmental cost of such practices is almost never included in standard business cost/benefit analyses.
As we exited the plastics warehouse, we looked up at the sprawling landfill. We didn’t see any garbage spilling out. It was just a steep hilly landscape with cherry blossoms lining the edges and an occasional pipe jutting out the top. But we were looking at the nice side.
The landfill is a bit over 200 square meters and mostly full, so Jeju needs somewhere to put its garbage. This has led to something of a landfill war on the island, but legal battles have delayed any resolution.
As we passed a humming building where methane gas from the landfill is captured, Won Chun-mi reminded us that 2800 megawatts of electricity powered by methane came from this reclamation station. That means a year’s worth of power for 200 households.
I found that pretty exciting, even though capturing methane isn’t very efficient, with 60-85 percent of methane escaping.
Another buzzing edifice that I lamented not being able to enter was the garbage sludge building. Leachate - or liquid yuck - is a sexy part of any garbage facility due to the inherent danger it presents.
At the bottom of any landfill, there should be a protective lining - a meter thick or more - that collects leachate so it doesn’t contaminate the local groundwater. The leachate is then drained and moved to a separate processing area.
It’s insanely toxic, which was why we were prohibited from entering the facility. Won Chun-mi reminded me of this as I inched closer.
Next we were taken to the incinerator. It’s huge, with a smokestack jutting out towards the heavens. Luckily, on the day we went, they’d stuck a cork in it. There was no smoke (my lungs silently rejoiced), but sometimes, during peak periods, the incinerator runs 24 hours a day, releasing long snakes of exhaust into the sky.
For many, the idea of burning trash is alarming, but others see the benefit of an incinerator which reduces trash size by 90 percent. The facility also has special filters to mitigate the release of toxic gases. Furthermore, proponents argue that incinerators have the potential to convert waste to energy, which could lead to an overall carbon dioxide negative output system.
▲ The "Crushinator" Photo courtesy Ann Bush
The grand finale of our tour was the food waste section, in all of its odoriferous, nose-hair burning glory. As we stared at the vast pile of steaming, fermenting, food waste pulp - our eyes watering - Won Chun-mi explained how about 30 percent of food waste is actually just plain garbage.
Once the regular garbage is separated from the food, most of what then remains is water - up to 70 percent of the total mass. So it has to go through a dehydration process.
Once it’s dehydrated, it’s chopped up and fermented for about two weeks. It ends up looking a lot like the leftovers of a good fruit juicing session, only much nastier. Half of it goes through this process and is sold to farmers as a basic fertilizer at 2,000 won for 10 kilograms.
The other half goes to a private contractor that uses a microbacterial/heat composting system to turn food waste into a rich, coffee-dark loam of a second, higher grade fertilizer.
Park Byeong-nyeon, the onsite representative for this company - Geoevergreen - was more than happy to give us reading materials on the process, as well as his impressive business card which had the term “geobacillus thermodenitrificans” pasted across it.
You could tell Byeong-nyeon was a man who was proud of his work as we stood there looking at the huge, plastic-wrapped warehouse filled with mountains of steaming fertilizer being shoveled around by dutiful backhoes.
▲ Hot, steaming fertilizer Photo courtesy Ann Bush
Whereas all the previous odors of that morning had been deeply disturbing, this aroma of this place was more wholesome microbacterial vigor. Apparently the farmers love it too. It’s the fertilizer of choice among the two options.
All in all, Ruth and I walked away from our expedition reinvigorated. However, our tour ultimately led to more questions than answers.
We wondered what the new waste processing center, slated for completion in Dongbokri Village by 2018, would look like. It’s urgently needed since the current center seems to be bursting at the seams. Nobody could have predicted the approaching wave of development when the center was built in the nineties.
Ruth and I drove off, giddy - geeking out on garbage - discussing our hopes for Jeju to fulfill its promise of becoming a “green” island.
▲ The building blocks of a green future Photo courtesy Ann Bush
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