A Letter from South Korea

Guest blog by Andy Hughes, Photographer and Plastic Pollution Coalition Artist Ally 

This spring I left home in Cornwall, UK, and headed to Gapado Island, South Korea, to live and work as a Gapado Artist in Residence (Gapado AiR). I was nominated for the award by the Director of Turner Contemporary. Gapado Island is on target to be the world’s first completely carbon-neutral island by 2030. It’s a tiny landmass in the South China Sea (population of ~100 people). The UNESCO world-famous Haenyeo women divers live here; watching them dive and then resurface and whistle to each other, collecting sea trash as they practice their traditional shellfishing technique is eye-opening. 

North side of Gapado Island, stacked plastic waste collected by Haenyeo. Photo by Andy Hughes.

I’ll be living here for six months so I’m getting to know what life is like in a coastal place where plastic waste washes ashore in droves. It’s a scenario that is repeated across the globe everywhere sea and land meet. It’s where I began photographing plastic waste almost 35 years ago. So much has changed since then, especially the volume of plastic pollution, which has increased by a massive proportion and continues to surge today. Yet as plastic pollution has grown, so has the number of people dedicated to raising awareness of the problem, creating lots of noise about it. 

Living in South Korea affords me the rare opportunity to see firsthand how people in a country located far from my own act and think about the plastic pollution problem. Beyond the practicalities and activist methods used by many, this new experience is helping me to see the subject from a fresh perspective, perhaps in a more esoteric way. 

Plastic waste and climate change aren’t just technocratic problems, it’s about how we think and see the world. There are many differences socially, visually, and culturally; the issue of creating a “plastic-free” environment here doesn’t seem very high on the agenda. In some ways, I was shocked at how much stuff sold in South Korea is plastic wrapped, even in a country where the tradition of markets and market days has carried into the present. South Korea’s smaller towns and in the countryside still have weekly markets and remain an important part of South Korean life. These markets are often filled with a variety of fruit and vegetables (unwrapped), along with other items for daily living, such as clothes, pots, pans, soap and cleaning supplies (including lots of plastic). Plastic is affordable, and its properties are for many people very practical.

In South Korea, I have seen various messages about environmental issues, and it seems to me that there is strong public participation in recycling, at least where I am currently based. But as Plastic Pollution Coalition Members are well aware, recycling plastic is not enough to stop pollution; it’s continued plastic production that needs to be challenged. 

It is also worrying to see that there is so much advertising for bottled water here. Back home, bottled water companies have shifted from depicting beautiful people drinking from a bottle on their labels; instead, they use a classic blue color and other greenwashing techniques such as adding images of flowers or beautiful landscapes. I have seen many advertisements here that are clearly aimed at youth, and there’s heavy cultural focus on appearance, combined with a thriving makeup culture, dubbed “K-beauty.” It’s rich pickings for marketing water and all manner of soft drinks bottled in plastic packaging—which of course creates much pollution.

Plastic Free Jeju

Gwaki Beach, Jeju Island. Photo by Andy Hughes.

Set against this, there are some people pushing for positive change. On a very hot and humid summer’s day in July, I met an enthusiastic group at Aewol on Jeju Island, called “Plastic Free Jeju.” They show that there is a growing community in South Korea planting seeds for future germination. The children I met were super excited to be a part of the cleanup activities. I learned a new term too, it’s called “plogging,” which is when you pluck up pieces of trash while jogging. Plastic Free Jeju organized many events, holding one most weekends. You can find out more on their Instagram feed.

Plastic Free Jeju team warming up before the plogging near Gwaki Beach. Photo by Andy Hughes.

I asked their Founder, Kyeong, to tell me a little about their work and history to date, and following is what she said:

Some say Jeju is beautiful when viewed from 100 meters away. But if you look closer, there is a lot of garbage. The black rocks on the volcanic island of Jeju are full of waste. I set up Plastic Free Jeju to take action with citizen support. We hope to change mindsets here on the island. Although Jeju is famous for its drinking water, the consumption of bottled water by local residents is increasing. The garbage problem caused by this is very serious. Plastic bottled water is one of the most common types of garbage found in roadside bushes and beaches. To help reduce bottled water consumption, we have persuaded cafe owners in Jeju to provide free drinking water to anyone with a personal cup. Our group Plastic Free Jeju started in 2019. We pick up trash with the citizens and try our best to spread the Plastic Free Jeju campaign. Now, every weekend, we organize beach cleaning and urban plogging. Children participate in the plogging activities together, and together we perform our Plastic Free Jeju campaign song with them. I think picking up trash is important, but a lifestyle that doesn’t throw out trash is even more important. To do that, we need changes in our lives. I want Plastic Free Jeju to be a campaign that talks about life changes required for a sustainable global environment and leads our actions. I want to make a positive impact on citizens, government agencies, and help support others spread the word here in South Korea.

Kyeong ah, Founder of Plastic Free Jeju

Eco-anxiety and Solastalgia

Plastic Eclipse (2022) © Andy Hughes

In late September, the 7th International Marine Debris Conference (7IMDC) took place in Busan, South Korea. It is the world’s longest-running international conference dedicated to the issue of marine litter and plastic pollution. I exhibited work at the 5th conference in 2011, and since then there has been a sustained effort by many to raise the harms associated with plastic. There is now near universal agreement that it is a harmful material. 

Given plastic’s wide use and starring role in many of our daily lives, any attempt to cut our ties with it completely might seem fruitless and impossible. I’ve been making artwork connected to plastic waste for more than 30 years—as for myself, my thoughts about the subject have changed. More recently my thoughts have shifted towards a more philosophical approach rather than a continuation of my activist art practice. I recognize that, for some, this might sound like a cop out. Not so, as I have read more academic papers which connect the subject matter within a wider framework of eco-anxiety and solastalgia, I see and understand that economies which prioritize symbolism in communicating use waste itself symbolically. The goods we use and consume through this form of communication tether us to the profit motive, which is at the cornerstone of neoliberal economies, thereby rendering the environmental change we need almost impossible.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that choosing a bamboo toothbrush, rejecting a plastic straw, joining a beach cleanup, and so on is redundant. These actions are part of the mechanics of internal psychological shifts in perspective and should be encouraged. I hope my thoughts and creative practice will have some impact here in South Korea, but there’s no doubt that I will be taking fresh and new perspectives back with me to Cornwall.
You’ll be able to read more about Andy and his work in South Korea on his website later this autumn.

Creature Study (2022) © Andy Hughes

One response to “A Letter from South Korea”

  1. Pam Longobardi says:

    Andy, beautiful essay and striking new work. Sounds like an amazing experience. Thanks for the report.

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