A country known for its record internet speeds and booming economy, South Korea is well-acquainted with how to produce, and yet to learn how to reduce. Like many Southeast Asian countries, Korea is plagued by major environmental problems like pollution and a lack of natural resources. They are late-to-the-party in adopting wide scale eco-friendly measures, introducing a ban on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets only last year, while other countries have enforced this rule for over half a decade. However, as more and more travellers have chosen Korea as their destination, environmental awareness has increased. Whether you’re staying long-term or just for a short visit, there’s plenty of easy ways to live sustainably in Seoul. Here are just a few suggestions!
Cook at home
No matter what your dietary needs or preferences, cooking at home is the best place to start. It can be tempting to eat out everyday in Seoul, especially if you’ve got a busy schedule. Meat is a staple of Korean cuisine and most restaurants offer little to no vegetarian alternatives. By choosing to eat at home you can eat more healthily, sustainably and cheaply.
Above all, my favourite Korean food has to be ban-chan (반찬), aka side dishes. Most ban-chan are super easy to make and will keep in the fridge for months, meaning you’ve always got something to eat if you’ve had no time to buy groceries. Ban-chan are also an excuse to get creative and invent your own dishes! Suyeon makes a delicious salad with gourd and yoghurt and I like to add fresh herbs into the mix if available. But, if you’re not a fan of cooking, you can find ban-chan at your local supermarket. Some of my favourites include: kimchi — of course –, stir-fried spinach and/or soybean sprouts, stir-fried courgette (aka zucchini), spicy cucumber, quails eggs and even simple pickles.
You may have noticed that all of these dishes are completely veggie (vegan if you don’t count the quails eggs!) making for a meal that is green in more ways than one. At Halloween — post-pumpkin carving — I used the pumpkin innards to make delicious vegan dough balls and pumpkin hummus and roasted the seeds for a crispy salad topping — so nothing went to waste!
Additionally, cooking at home is the best way to practice proper management of your food waste. Be conscious of how much food you buy and how long the shelf life is, and learn to eat in accordance with your schedule. For example, if you know you’re going to be tired after a long day of work, prepare the night before so all you need to do is heat it up when you get home.
Head to the market
If you live nearby a traditional market in Seoul like I do, let me tell you, you’re truly blessed. Traditional markets are the go-to for fresh produce and they’re an excellent cheap and eco-friendly alternative to chain supermarkets. Supermarkets package fruit and veg in plastic to prevent damage during transit, as well as giving an illusion of better hygiene. Traditional markets stock local produce in season, so there’s no need for that nasty plastic. Furthermore, a good rinse of water is enough to keep them clean! By shopping at the market, not only are you supporting local Korean farmers but you can try delicious fruits native to Korea, like persimmon and oriental melon.
Indulge in a special treat
When it comes to eating eco-friendly, my natural advantage is that I’ve never been a huge fan of meat. In the UK, I ate primarily veggie or pescatarian meals, enjoying meat at the occasional Sunday roast. But, its not so easy when you’re surrounded by BBQ and chi-maek (치맥)… A great way to help the environment without quitting meat cold-turkey — no pun intended — is to have it as a special treat. Why not arrange a monthly BBQ meal with friends and spend the extra money you’ve saved on the more expensive cut of meat? By eating out less and spending more on these special occasions, you can enjoy high-quality meat that is sourced from Korea, instead of imported.
The skincare mothership of Korea, Olive Young, now features entire ranges of skincare with a natural ethos. Also cropping up in Seoul are refill stations like Almang Market (Mangwon-dong) and The Bottle Factory (Yeonhui-dong) where you can bring your own containers to fill up with dish soap, shampoo, fabric softener etc.
Furthermore, sustainability is a frequent theme among creatives, the likes of which flock to Seoul from all over the globe. Up-and-coming areas like Mang-won are home to dozens of project spaces that host mini exhibitions. I recently visited a pop-up at Stage Mangwon, featuring Magazine B, whose concept is going global with local trade. They’ve produced travel guides for cities including Seoul and Berlin, providing the reader with exclusive knowledge on local merchants.
If go big or go home is your motto, then be sure to keep an eye on the event schedules at larger exhibition centres. Dongdaemun and COEX often host huge markets of independent sellers. Here you can buy everything from skincare to kitchenware and zero-waste brands are sure to make an appearance too. However, if you prefer online shopping, here are some great brands with sustainability in mind, available in Korea:
On my first trip to Korea, I was hooked instantly on buying cheap clothes from the Hong-dae main street. But, while these off-the-rack steals seemed like mana from heaven, they’re fast fashion at it’s absolute worst. Fast fashion entails the mass replication of trendy clothing by use of cheap materials and polluting dyes. Not only does it harm the environment, but the clothes are poorly-made, meaning a $200 coat from a reputable retailer will actually save you money in the long run.
As my mother’s daughter, I have loved second-hand shopping since I first received pocket money. The ‘Beautiful Store‘, also known as the Goodwill of Korea, is the best place to get good quality clothes, furniture and electronics at almost criminal prices — not to mention everything you spend goes towards a good cause! You never know what you’ll find here — I recently picked up a funky plant pot-bluetooth speaker for just $5!
‘Dang-geun (Carrot) Market‘ is essentially the Korean version of Facebook Marketplace. You can buy and sell almost anything in your local area with easy pick-up and drop-off — no more pesky postage n’ packaging fees. Dang-geun Market is a great place to recycle your products and reuse another’s, as well as limiting the number of polluting delivery trucks on the road.
If you don’t need the extra cash you can donate to your local Beautiful Store (see above) or clothes bin (see below.)
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The three Rs that school forgot to teach us and the easiest ways to do your bit for our planet wherever you are in the world! Recycling bins can be found in most households, so why not go a step further and start the recycling process before the bin. I refurbished an old toner spray as a vessel for a homemade insect repellent. Suyeon like to reuse those pretty skincare bottles and pots as flower vases, soap dispensers and diffusers!
The beautiful designs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Korean skincare. Another perk is the treasure trove of samples that come free with your purchase. However, it’s all too easy for these samples to fall by the wayside and end up unused. As a light traveler, I love taking my spare samples with me when I stay overnight somewhere, saving me the need for a bulky toiletry bag. Or, if you’ve got free containers handy, go ahead and squeeze your samples in!
Renew and Create
Our most loved clothes i.e. the ones we wear all the time, are unfortunately the ones most likely to get holes and tears. Before heading out immediately to buy a replacement, try fixing them yourself (it’s not as hard as you might think…) And there are plenty of Youtube videos out there to aid you if you’re struggling.
If you’re a craft wizard like Suyeon, you might enjoy making your own clothing, ornaments and decor. If you need a sewing machine you can always join a local craft club with an added bonus of meeting new people. Even if you’ve no nimble fingers — like yours truly — give it a whirl! I up-cycled an old lace trim from my dress as a lovely decoration for my bed post.
You can collect resources from just about anywhere. Pick up free postcards from art exhibitions to adorn your walls or collect pinecones and acorns as natural home decor. Fill your home with plants and turn your home into a sanctuary. Additionally, plants act as natural humidifiers, perfect for the dry winter months.
Reap the benefits
Seoul is well-equipped with shopping malls, arcades and even an indoor amusement park to ensure an exciting day if the weather is poor. But, if the weather is on your side, make the most of it! Go for a bike ride along the Han River. ‘Dda-reungi‘ is an inexpensive bike rental app with plenty of stations throughout Seoul to rent from and return to.
Check out: Heart of Seoul: Yeouido Hangang Park
I cycle home from work everyday as a way of side-stepping the rush hour traffic. Seoul’s unique charm: take advantage of the many mountains that the city is blessed with. Go hiking and get a fresh dose of — well — fresh air.
(Special thanks to this article’s inspiration, my roommate and big sister, Suyeon!)