The South Korean government has been handing out dust masks to residents of Uiseong County in North Gyeongsang Province because an illegal mountain of garbage has been continuously burning for the past three months, according to CNN.
The blaze endangers the health of local citizens, contaminates the environment, and highlights the country’s growing waste management crisis.
South Korea has the highest per capita plastic consumption rate in the world, with the average citizen consuming 300 pounds of the stuff each year, according to Euromap.
In the past, South Korea would deal with hard-to-recycle plastic in one of two ways — either entrepreneurs would incinerate plastic for fuel or excess plastic would be shipped to China.
But both of these options have become untenable in recent years.
The fumes from incineration plants blanketed cities in smog, forcing the government to shut down the worst offenders to curb air pollution. Then China said it was no longer going to be taking junk plastic and other materials from other countries.
Since the amount of garbage being produced in South Korea hasn’t decreased, the country has had to scramble for solutions to the growing problem.
In the meantime, a lot of illegal waste management schemes have emerged.
And the mountain in Uiseong may be the most egregious example. The landfill holds 80 times the amount of garbage it has a license for and the intense heat generated by so much waste packed tightly together causes fire to break out.
FLK GLOBAL REPORT - South Korea's County Of Uiseong Plagued By Plastic Trash Fires 3-3-19: The people of a South Korean farming county, Uiseong are engulfed in the midst of a burning trash problem.https://t.co/BTdZO3Y1hepic.twitter.com/m09w6OQvxL— FLK GLOBAL REPORT (@FlkGlobal) March 3, 2019
Residents of the small town told CNN that the constant conflagrations release window-coating dust into the air, making every trip outside a perilous journey of inhaled contaminants. Even small, contained plastic fires release toxic chemicals into the air. Exposure to a massive, months-long plastic fire endangers the health of every person in the area, according to Greenpeace.
The South Korean government plans to remove 21,000 tons of garbage from the site this year and the landfill’s owner plans to build an incineration plant to handle the remaining waste.
But to ensure that future mountains of plastic waste don’t go up in flames, the government will likely to have to restrict how much plastic gets created in the country in the first place.
"Consumers can bear the discomfort and reduce their use of single-use cups and straws," Kim Mi-kyung, of Greenpeace Korea, told CNN. "But a greater portion of plastic production and waste is created by industry and their packaging. It's time for industry to reduce plastic."