South Korea's waste bin-free public restrooms get mixed response

South Korea's Ministry of Interior and Safety designed a special sticker that says to flush used toilet paper.
South Korea's Ministry of Interior and Safety designed a special sticker that says to flush used toilet paper.PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD
Seoul Station’s public restrooms are kept tidy due to the cleaner’s efforts.
Seoul Station’s public restrooms are kept tidy due to the cleaner’s efforts.PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD
Three of the 20 toilets in the women’s restrooms at Seoul’s Hongik University Station were out of order due to blockages when The Korea Herald visited on Jan. 14.
Three of the 20 toilets in the women’s restrooms at Seoul’s Hongik University Station were out of order due to blockages when The Korea Herald visited on Jan. 14.PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Japanese exchange student Aoi still remembers the "shocking moment" when she saw a rubbish bin in a South Korean restroom stall for the first time.

"As there are no such trash bins in toilets in Japan, I was shocked when I saw the bin overflowing with used toilet paper," Aoi said.

"The stink from the bin and the dirty toilet paper scattered on the ground caused panic immediately. I still have a fear of opening a restroom door, guessing whether it would be clean or not."

Aoi is one of many people who had been disgusted by the bins inside the cubicles of South Korea's public restrooms. They had long been a controversial topic among South Koreans and foreign visitors alike.

Following criticism and complaints, the government decided to remove all rubbish bins from public restrooms starting January 2018 by enacting the revised implementation ordinance of the Public Toilets, etc. Act.

Under the law, the providers of public restrooms who leave rubbish bins inside cubicles can be fined up to one million won (S$1,200) if the bins are not removed after a warning.

According to a survey conducted by the government in 2017, 81 per cent of 1,200 respondents said that eliminating bins from toilet cubicles would make the space much cleaner.

A year after the implementation of the law, many public restroom users, including Aoi, have welcomed the move.

"I feel the restrooms without the waste bins seem much cleaner compared to ones that have the bins in terms of  appearance and hygiene," Aoi said.

Ms Oh Min-hyuck, coming out of a public restroom in Seoul Station, also expressed satisfaction.

"The toilet's odour has been dramatically reduced. The best thing is that I don't have to see the faeces-smeared toilet paper filling the bins anymore," Ms Oh said.

Some janitors said the rubbish bin removal improved their working conditions as well.

"Before the trash cans were removed, it was difficult to separate dirty toilet paper from other recyclable garbage. As people now flush the used toilet paper, it is much easier to clean up the restroom these days," a female janitor at Seoul Station told The Korea Herald.

Most of the cleaners the Herald spoke to, however, complained that public restrooms are becoming messier due to the absence of waste bins.

"The public restroom might seem cleaner compared to the past, as we constantly clean up the restrooms quickly. From my point of view, however, nothing has really changed," a cleaner at Sinchon Station said.

"Still, some people put their used toilet paper on a shelf or throw it in a corner or sanitary pad bin. I don't think many people read or understand the message 'please flush the used toilet paper' on the door."

The worst problem is the frequently blocked toilets, the cleaners agreed.

"I find clogged toilets at least twice every day, even though I work here during the afternoon only," the cleaner added.

"People put everything into the toilet. Diapers, sanitary pads, coffee cups and even socks are sometimes found in clogged toilets. Some people use too much toilet tissue to cover the seats, which clogs up the toilet as well."

Mr Kim Yoon-soo, head of Seoul Station's environmental management, agreed with the cleaners' claim.

"When Seoul Station first removed the trash bins from the restrooms, the number of times that toilets got blocked skyrocketed. The number has been slowly decreasing these days, but the blockages do occur more frequently," he said.

Seoul Metro statistics also indicated that blocked toilets correlate with bin removal, as the increase in incidents came when the waste bins were taken away.

In a survey of public restrooms at stations on Subway Lines 1-4, the number of times that toilets became clogged up surged from 648 to 1,049 in August 2017, when Seoul Metro took away bins from the men's restrooms.

When Seoul Metro removed the rubbish bins in both men and women's restrooms in September 2017, the number increased to 1,448 and peaked at 1,709 in December that year.

"In a bid to prevent toilets from getting clogged, Seoul Metro has been offering toilet tissue that easily dissolves in water since we removed trash cans," Ms Jeong Seung-ok from Seoul Metro's public relations department told The Korea Herald.

Ms Jeong said the subway operator picked the 20 stations where toilet blockages are most frequently reported and plans to rebuild the restrooms to increase the size of the pipes.

The clogged toilets, however, are often caused by public ignorance, not the size of the drainpipes, according to a government official in charge of the public restroom environment.

"Experts say Korean public toilets' drainage systems are not very different from those of other countries. Some drainpipes in Japan's public restrooms are narrower than Korea's pipes," said Ms Joo Eu-ddeum from the Ministry of Interior and Safety.

"Most of the blockages occur at the toilet rather than in the pipes, which means garbage thrown in the toilet often causes the blockage. Therefore, the Interior Ministry is focusing on raising public awareness on keeping the restrooms clean."

The Interior Ministry has designed a sticker that urges public restroom users to flush used toilet paper and has shared the image via its website. The stickers can be commonly found inside doors, at eye level for those sitting on the toilet.

Also, the ministry has made videos and banners to promote the message. The advertisements are displayed near public restrooms, highway service areas and stations on busy days, such as the Chuseok and Lunar New Year's holidays.

"The government can't force trash bins in private building restrooms to be removed. The ministry, however, believes that the country's toilet culture can be improved gradually as people get used to restroom manners (of flushing the used toilet paper) in public restrooms," Ms Joo said.