Monday, April 2, 2018

Seoul cartoneros

I jumped from my seat as soon as I noticed the skinny 80-year-old man falling down, but arrived a couple of seconds too late. Luckily, two gentlemen had already caught both him and his bike before they hit the macadam. Yet the four of us couldn't prevent the slomo collapse of his load ; about two cubic meters of cardboard miraculously held by a single rope, the fruit of a morning's hard work for that ancient Seoul cartonero.

The halabeoji insisted to rearrange his pile alone, and left with only a slightly bruised pride. The rest of us? Crushed by the collective shame of a society that lets its senior citizens risk their lives* to earn a dime.

These people are not even homeless, unlike that much younger can collector who used to sleep behind Seoul Station, years before they tore its walkway down, and converted its elevated road into Seoullo 7017 (again, please do watch Nils Clauss' haunting 'Sigur Ros / Varud' video - see "Happy Seoul").

If Korea's welfare system should theoretically prevent this kind of aberrations, old cartoneros remain a common sight across the city, part of the folklore. We know they proudly refuse our help, but we also know they like us to discard our pieces of cardboard a day before garbage collection, to secure their share.


'Lady cartonero at the Seosomun crossing, Seoul' (20161208 - twitter.com/theseoulvillage/status/806793131580497920)
We're not saving their jobs, we're institutionalizing a wrongful role for them in our ecosystem. And instead of solving problems, we create new ones by maintaining an unsustainable recycling model.

Consider this: these days, street collectors have a tougher time selling their harvest because China stopped buying recycled material from Seoul. And Korea is considering stopping selective waste collection altogether because it can't process all of it itself. What was the point of investing so well in recycling pedagogy without going all the way?

But no, it made more sense having our eldest citizens risk their lives picking up our trash, and pushing it to the nearest eyesore of a collection hub; it made more sense having this pervasive, absurd logistics network feed whole ships of recycled stuff for China.

Recycling should be about reducing our carbon footprint. And sparing our grandparents' feet.


Seoul Village 2018
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* I seriously wonder how many casualties actually stem from this nonsense. A couple of years ago, I helped a very old cartonera push a ridiculously massive cart up a hill... it could have crushed her otherwise, but thanks to me, it might have actually crushed someone else further afield, on the downhill side.

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