Gwangju Blog

The Garbage of Geumnamro

Not far from my front door on a Monday morning.

Not far from my front door on a Monday morning.

Recently I was admiring the mission of a few foreigners in Gwangju who had the great idea to head out into their respective neighborhoods and pick up trash (#cleangwangju).  By doing this,  they hoped others would see them and be encouraged to do the same.  I know they certainly inspired me!   So, I grabbed a 30-liter trash bag, found some gloves, and went out to clean-up my neighborhood.

I made it about 10-feet before my bag was full.   How is that possible, you ask?  Easy.  I live in the downtown area.

Every morning I wake up early to head to the radio station by 7.  Normally I’m not really all that focused on my surroundings because of the time, lack of coffee, and work is on my mind.  Usually my brain just processes downtown as “No zombies, everything is normal.”   But the trash pick-up really got me to look at my neighborhood.   When I actually took the time, strolled through, and really examined my surroundings, it actually drove home what I’d always known but never considered.  Downtown is filthy.


By the time 9 am rolls around, I’m heading to the university and things look a little better.  The garbage trucks have come and gone.  Business owners are out front sweeping and hosing down the street.  The elderly street-cleaning team is getting ready to head out, sporting their neon-green vests.  However, you begin to notice pretty quickly that it never gets completely clean.  Cigarette butts in every pavement crevice, ramyeon bowls in alleyways, and unidentifiable detritus piling up where no one really walks.  Next day, the cycle starts again, with the remains of the previous day still sitting somewhere.  Never gone.

Oh look, more trash. Looks like a good place to throw mine.

Oh look, more trash. Looks like a good place to throw mine.

I usually get the same responses when I try talking to people about this.  Downtown is filthy because…

“There are no public trashcans.”    Nope.  There sure aren’t.  In fact, other than businesses, there are no convenient places to get rid of garbage.  Of course, public trashcans would mean someone would have to go through them in order to sort the recycling.  Also the argument could be made that some penny-pinching individuals would deposit their home or business garbage in the cans.  That way they wouldn’t have to buy a trashbag.  But honestly, if you’re downtown for a night out, where do you throw your garbage?

“People who do this are usually drunk.”  Not really.  Sure, I’ve seen random drunk people toss things on the ground.  Mostly?  The people I see are stone-cold sober.  More than that, they’re oblivious.  I’ve been sweeping in front of my building and people will toss cups, cigarette butts, etc. on the ground in front of me.  When I call out to them, they just turn around and look at me like I have two heads.  One person actually asked me why I was upset.  When I explained, she looked annoyed, said “So?” and gestured to everyone around her.  It was 4 pm and there was already plenty of trash on the ground.

“What will the elderly do for money?”  Seriously, this is a response I get pretty often.  The city pays the elderly (remember the people in the neon-green vests?) to go about in groups and pick-up trash.  Several people use this as an excuse to justify their littering.  Litter so the elderly will have money.  Sounds like a good deal.

Not in order by height. So sad.

Not in order by height. So sad.

The rest of the answers are usually some form of “It’s downtown, that’s how it is” or “Not my problem”.  It seems like that, doesn’t it?   You go downtown for a night out, have fun, and go home.   Someone else will take care of it.  We’ve ALL thought that.  Either we’ve left a mess for someone else, or we see someone causing a mess and do nothing about it.  We don’t think about the extra work it causes the business owners of downtown or the trash that gets blown into the river and elsewhere.  But this is downtown, the place everyone goes when they visit.  Is a trash dump what you want people to see?

Everyone can certainly agree that garbage and littering is “bad”, but what do we do?  First, we need to get proactive about it.  Having a place downtown to throw away your garbage would certainly help.  I’ve heard that complaint for a looooooong time.  Perhaps it’s time to encourage the city to put out the public trashcans.  Those same street cleaning elderly can make their money sorting (if that’s REALLY what you’re worried about).   Start talking to people you know.  Have them contact the city or their website.  Let’s stop complaining about it to each other and start complaining to the right people!

Can't smoke inside? The pavement is the new ashtray.

Can’t smoke inside? The pavement is the new ashtray.

The second part is exactly what you think it is.  We need to take responsibility for our actions. I’m not placing blame.  I’m as much to blame as anyone else when it comes to not thinking about the consequences of littering.  Do we really need to toss our trash on the ground?  Do we really need to put our cigarette butt out and leave it on the street?  It’s certainly easier, but is it right?  We all know the answer, but do we have the gumption to do otherwise?  For the sake of a neighborhood we ALL share, I hope so.

I’ll be heading out tomorrow with a garbage bag, again.   I’m feeling inspired.  I hope, in time, it won’t be necessary.



  • Awesome Brian! Thanks for writing, sharing, and doing your part to help clean Gwangju. I agree, it’s about personal responsibility and a little bit of action we can each take. Personally, I get a bit of that “instant gratification” feeling out of seeing litter I just picked up no longer on the ground and that small area a little cleaner. And the more I do it, the more I do it. I’d like to encourage you and everyone else reading to feel free to share photos of your efforts with the Instagram tag, #CleanGwangju so we can all see a digital landfill of the trash that no longer blots out streets.
    And more at

  • Tembo

    Now that you mention it, there is a lot of litter in downtown Gwangju (and in other parts of this fair city). Thanks for writing about this.

    Here’s a thought: what if, in addition to getting a number of public trash cans for that part of the city, some people were to “adopt” downtown (like what you sometimes see on roads or highways in the U.S.)?