How to Sort Trash in Korea

I have to admit I was confused the first time I took out my trash in Korea. My apartment security guard rejected my hefty bag full of garbage like he was Lebron James. Korea has taken bold steps to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Unlike America, where all the recycled goods are heaped into one bin, recycling in Korea is a pretty complicated process. It includes separating aluminum from glass, batteries from Styrofoam, and even vinyl bags from plastic ones.


The recycling center is in front of the security station in my apartment complex. Not only is it neat and orderly, but the bins are marked in both English and Korean. I have to admit I was confused the first time I took my trash to the recycle center, and my trash was rejected. He then lifted the bin and showed me the kind of bag I needed.

I nodded and put my hefty bag into the back of the Jeep and dumped it into a dumpster on-post. I asked a few people where I got the bags, and no one seemed to know what I was talking about. They loaded their trash into the back of their cars and dumped it into the dumpsters on-post. I consider myself a steward of the earth and want to be more responsible than that.

When you move into a new place, the guards will come and watch you. I mean, they assist you in sorting your recyclables into the correct bins. But, they do it whether you want them to or not. The next time I went to the recycling center, I was prepared to dump it and run if I had to.

Recycling Trash in Korea

You don’t need special bags to dispose of recyclable items. Instead, most buildings have bins designated for sorting different categories of recyclables. Categories include: glass, plastic, styrofoam, paper, cardboard, aluminum, light bulbs, batteries, and vinyl convenience bags.

If you live in an older building, share house, or hanok and don’t have a recycling center, you can leave these items curbside next to trashbag piles in the evening.

Sorting Recycling

Paper (종이류): Newspapers, Paper-back books, notebooks, shipping boxes, etc.

Paper Packing (종이팩): Cardboard milk containers, Paper Take-out containers, any cardboard packaging with printed content on it.

PET (유리병류): Plastic bottles and hard plastic containers

Clear Plastics (무색/투명 테드병): Water bottles, other colorless plastics

Other Plastics (기타플라스틱류): Water jugs, reusable plastics, mechanical pencils, laundry detergent containers, etc.

Vinyl plastics (비닐봉투): Ramen wrappers, chip bags, other thin plastics with printed content.

Cans (캔류): Soda cans, tuna cans, and other aluminum packaging.

Cloth (폐의류): Clothing, dish rags, scrap fabric. (no bedding, carpets, hanbok, or leather)

Styrofoam (스티로품): Styrofoam packaging

Batteries (전지류): Any batteries, big or small

Lightbulbs (폐형광등): Standard bulbs, string lights, LEDs, and neon

General Waste Trash in Korea

General-use trash bags come in several different sizes. The largest, a 75-liter bag, fits the standard American kitchen trash can. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to use any other bags. In addition, the bags are much more expensive than hefty bags.

I mostly 50 liter and 75 liter bags. They are 1,100Won and 1,300Won respectively. In most places, you will find similar pricing, but it does vary a bit by the district. I buy them in bulk, ten at a time, but there isn’t any discount. Buying in bulk is just more convenient. The larger bags increased the amount of garbage. So the government recently discontinued the 100 liter bags for trash in Korea.

What is General Waste?

General waste includes everything not considered food or recycling. It also includes toilet paper you cannot flush down the toilet, sanitary napkins, diapers, and clothes.

Yes, some people live in old buildings where they have to put their soiled toilet paper in a trash can. Sounds gross. Well, shit happens.

Food Waste Trash in Korea

Food waste garbage bags are slightly different and take a little more effort than recycling in Korea. They are used for anything edible by man or animal, i.e., cooked and uncooked meat, fruit rinds, raw eggs, and vegetables.

I use a diaper genie-like pail on my kitchen counter to dispose of leftover food. Food waste is stored in containers like the ones above, usually activated by a card given to each tenant upon move-in.

However, if you don’t live in a newer apartment complex, you will need to purchase food waste bags in the same way you purchase general waste bags. My recommendation is to buy as small a bag as possible and keep it in the freezer until it is filled. This will reduce the smell and help you avoid bug problems.

Food Waste Exceptions

The exceptions for food waste are eggshells, crustacean shells (Crab, Lobster, Shrimp, etc.), clamshells, onion and garlic paper-like skin, animal bones, tea bags, or tea leaves. Remember, if you wouldn’t feed it to an animal, it’s not food waste. These things can be included in the general waste trash bags instead.

Oversized Trash in Korea

Oversized trash must be left in a designated area of the recycling center. Removal is not free, and it is generally based on the type and size of the item.

As the name implies, oversized garbage is trash that is too large to fit in conventional garbage bags. For example, refrigerators, TVs, air conditioners, mattresses, sofas, desks, tables, microwaves, and washing machines must be disposed of separately. However, don’t be surprised if you need to schedule a special pickup for large trash. In addition, you may want to rethink trashing your sofa because the pickup fee can be pricey.

I paid 2,000 Won for a broken door mirror a few weeks ago. That was the price, according to one of my apartment security guards.

How to Throw Out Oversized Furniture

If you don’t live in an apartment, unfortunately, each district has a different method for disposing of oversized furniture. You can search your district name, followed by ‘대형쓰레기’ on Naver for details.

Most commonly you can either purchase a sticker at the convenience store. Or, you may have to fill out an online form and receive a number that you will have to write on the item you wish to throw away. Then, you will have to leave it curbside.

You can ask your landlord, real estate agent, or the building management office if you have any questions. 

If you want to save some money getting rid of furniture in decent condition, you can sell items instead. Click Here to read more about selling secondhand goods in Korea.

Where to Buy Trash Bags

You can find General Waste trash bags at your local GS25, 7Eleven, CU, Emart, HomePlus, or LotteMart. Additionally, many local grocery stores allow you to purchase shopping bags that double as general waste bags. However, be sure to check on your district (동) borders. If you buy bags from another district, you cannot use them.

They are sold in bundles of 10 or 20, but you can also purchase them one at a time. I also bought my diaper genie bin at Home Plus. Likewise, you should find the food waste bags in the same aisle.

Trash Pickup

Garbage disposal times and recycling locations vary in South Korea. It depends on each district. Your home tour will include information on the trash system and collections times. Again, if you have any questions, you can ask your landlord, real estate agent, or the building management office. 

Final Thoughts

Recycling in Korea is complicated, especially for foreigners. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t understand or get it wrong from time to time. Koreans frequently make mistakes too. I know I appreciate the security guards at my apartment complex when I don’t know what to do with a particular item. So don’t hesitate to ask someone if you aren’t sure. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Even though you can buy bags at convenience stores, I wouldn’t suggest you do that. They are much more expensive than at markets. A 50liter bag was 300 Won more which adds up over time.
  • Separate your plastic, glass, paper, etc… in your apartment. Trust me, it’s a lot easier to dump entire bags of stuff into the bins. And the security guards, who aren’t doing much, tend to “help” when they see they don’t have to get their hands dirty.
  • Take out your food waste DAILY or freeze it. If not you’ll find gnats in your diaper genie.
  • Keep two trash cans. One is lined with a hefty bag for recycles and one is lined with the Korean trash bag.
  • Use a hairnet-like cover (sold at Daiso) in the sink strainer, to cut down on cleaning your drain.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand because you can be fined for non-compliance.
🇺🇸 Stacey Peters

I started blogging, writing, and taking travel-related photos to stay in touch with my friends and family while I traveled around the world with my soldier. So far, we've lived on three continents and traveled to more than 70 countries. Every new country increases my desire to see more. I have a passion for history, wine, and new experiences. This is the third time we've been assigned to live in Korea. We had the chance to go anywhere, but we chose to return to Korea one last time before my husband retired from military service. We chose Korea over Germany because we have a lot of Korean National friends, we love the food, culture, and traditions. I have enjoyed living in Korea, but I realized I hadn't immersed myself in the community. I had a ton of "surface level" knowledge, and that's okay for some people. But not me. So we returned to Korea to take everything we had left on the table off. I have had many experiences understanding what to do but not why I should do it. So I intend to delve deeper, ask why instead of what, and find out what I don't know I didn't know. Lol.