Zero-waste has been trending especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather conditions, as people slowly realize that there is not much time left to cool down the Earth. Going home after a long day, it’s hard not to notice the piles of trash in the bin, full of coffee cups and plastic containers from delivery food. But what if we didn’t need any of that excessive packaging? The Hanyang Journal met Yang Raegyo, Co-CEO of Almang Market, a small zero-waste shop in Seoul, where products are sold without packaging, and heard her inspirational story about changing her life for the Earth.
#What is Almang Market?
Q. Hello. Please introduce yourself briefly.
A. Hello, I'm Yang Raegyo, a YouTube creator of ‘Friendly Raegyo’ and co-CEO of Almang Market.
Q. Tell us about Almang Market. What kind of market is this?
A. Almang market is a zero-waste shop in Korea. Almang means kernels in Korean, and our slogan is to only sell the “kernel”, not the shell. We have a refill station for laundry detergent, shampoo, etc. and a community collection center that collects resources that cannot be recycled. We also have a sharing center where useless materials are reborn to be useful for someone else. Thus, our main business is to sell our products without the packaging. Also, we have a plastic-free workshop, though now temporarily suspended due to Covid-19, which acts as a waste complex platform-like space where various activities are conducted to reduce waste.
Q. What made you create Almang Market?
A. Before starting the business, I participated in a voluntary program named “Almang” in 2018 where we gathered to reduce trash at Mangwon market. People were really interested in reducing the use of even a single black plastic bag being used indiscriminately. There were about 10 people who carried on with the campaign and we called ourselves “alzza”, meaning “people who only want the kernels”. We started off with questions like “how about reducing waste from commonly used industrial products other than food ingredients?” or remarks such as “if Korea also had bulk refill shops like those overseas, we could significantly reduce the amount of trash”. The three of us Alzzas thought that we could also make a change and came up with the idea.
Q. Almang Market seems to encourage its customers to participate voluntarily.
A. I think we need a sense of awareness that everyone should solve this “trash problem” together. There are various social sectors such as government regulations or corporate initiatives, but it’s the consumers that buy, use, and throw away goods. I think it should be more than just thinking that everything will be recycled well after it’s been thrown out separating the waste. I think consumers should have more knowledge about trash in order to demand companies or the government to comprehend issues related to recycling and have time to really think about the process of recycling. People say that what you know is what you see, right? That sounds just right these days. More and more people that visit Almang Market are becoming aware of the problem beyond the simple act of throwing out trash. They either post on social media or visit the market with their friends to explain to us what they have felt and learned.
#The Leading Green Survivor
Q. There are still a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the concepts “Green Survival” or “zero waste”.
A. To explain briefly, zero waste literally means that there is no trash. A zero-waste life would be to live a life without trash. But we live in the city and it's hard to live without trash. So it refers to a lifestyle that is close to zero, where people live on a minimal garbage life with problem consciousness on waste issues. The term Green Survival means that environmentally friendly consumption is now becoming a must, not an option.
Q. Do you also practice a zero-waste life? When did you first pursue a natural and eco-friendly lifestyle? Did you have any difficulties changing your lifestyle?
A. I'm practicing zero waste by making my own way through the mistakes and lessons that I’ve learned. I’ve always thought that I was interested in the environment and that I was good at separating waste as much as I was interested in the environment, but I first learned the seriousness of the so-called ‘garbage fiasco’ in 2018 when the Chinese garbage export issue broke out. I was embarrassed and felt betrayed by the fact that many of the separated waste that I believed was being recycled well was being sold indiscriminately to other countries, and when I realized that the separation methods I’ve been using were a mess, I was quite ashamed of myself. After that, I got interested in Zero Waste for the first time through YouTube. At that time, zero waste was already trending abroad, but there was no Korean-style zero-waste life, so I started a YouTube channel to show the zero-waste life that suits Korea. Of course, there were more difficulties than I thought there would be but it was worth it. But it seems like it took quite some time to feel the worthiness. Zero waste lifestyle is something that changes even the smallest habits of your daily life, so I've been practicing to change one habit step by step. There were times when people around me changed first because I constantly showed them through my actions rather than words.
Q. What does 'zero-waste' mean to you?
A. I feel like I'm filming a full-length drama without a script. I just happened to become the co-CEO and my life has changed so much. Before zero waste, I wasn't satisfied with what I currently had and constantly wanted to have more, thinking that it was obvious. But now, I'm satisfied with the present, and the way I look at things has changed, so I really don't have much of a desire to keep on buying new things. Of course, my consumption has decreased along with the change of lifestyle.
Q. How are the products sold at a Zero Waste Shop different from other shops?
A. We sell items that we really need in daily life, rather than the ones that make money for us. The reason why I can say this is because we choose products based on experiences and lifestyles of us three co-representatives. Most of them are items that we feel necessary in life, such as shampoo, or toothbrushes. I think that’s why a lot of people choose to buy from our store. Moreover, I'm always looking of products that ‘circulate’ from production to disposal in order to reduce waste.
Q. When I visited Almang Market, there were a variety of products from multi-use masks to sanitary pads. Are there some products that you’d like to recommend to our readers?
A. I have a lot of products that I’d like to recommend. To choose a few things, I’d recommend the bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars. People usually replace their toothbrushes every three months or so you would be using four each year, and 40 for 10 years. Most plastic toothbrushes are thought to be recycled, but most of them are left out of the screening process and thrown away as trash. By the way, plastic toothbrushes are sorted as non-degradable plastic. Simply changing your choice of toothbrushes could help reduce the amount of plastic that you’d use throughout your daily lives. Another product I’d like to recommend is the shampoo bar. I'm sure a lot of people are unfamiliar with shampoo bars. Many of our customers are used to using liquid shampoo, and they’d think "how would we wash our hair with soap" but if you try using it once, it's one of the products with very high satisfaction. In particular, the discharge of non-recyclable plastic containers can be drastically reduced. Being aware that more than 90% of cosmetics (skin care, shampoo, body wash) containers cannot be recycled, shampoo bars are a very eco-friendly choice.
Q. Almang Market’s ‘Brita Attack’ seems very unique. What is this campaign and could you give us a brief explanation on its outcomes?
A. A lot of households in America, Canada or Europe use Brita® faucet filters to reduce the lead, chlorine, asbestos, benzene, particulates and other contaminants from their tap water. So they already have a lot of Brita filter recycling programs. There is a filter collection box, and Brita will collect it, replace the contents inside, and reuse the plastic container on the outside. Recently, a lot of people in Korea also started using Brita filters but in Korea, we don’t have that system so we have no choice but to discharge it as general waste. Although these water purifiers have a great advantage of not using electricity, we have to throw it away once a month, so we started the Brita Attack with the intention of making a recycling program for Brita filter users like the ones overseas. In fact, many people participated, so we collected more than 13,000 signatures and 1,500 Brita filters. We sent the signature and official letter to Brita Korea and I’m currently waiting for the reply to officially implement a recycling program.
Q. Almang Market has a community collection center that collects resources. What are some things to be aware of when bringing recyclables to the store?
A. 1. Empty it. 2. Wash it. 3. Separate it. 4. Don't mix it. You have to follow the four steps. When returning milk cartons, you need to empty the content, rinse it, and then dry it. Coffee powder should be dried thoroughly without any moisture left. In the case of bottle caps, we receive only single-material bottle caps without inner silicon packing (complex material). Depending on how you throw away garbage, it can become resource or trash.
Q. There aren’t that many zero-waste shops in Korea. Were there any difficulties while running Almang Market?
A. Preparing to start the business was quite difficult. In particular, because there was no concept of ‘refilling’, it was hard to find a manufacturer because the manufacturer did not supply small amount refills nor the need to reuse the bulk container. However, many manufacturers are contacting us now. Other than that, we don’t have many difficulties running the shop now.
Q. There must have been moments where you felt proud to run the market. When were those moments?
A. I'm proud of every single moment. Frankly speaking, when we first started the business, we always had the thought that our business might fail in the corner of our minds. We didn’t even aim to make profit and were determined to pay more for the operation. All we wanted was to try all the environmental education we could do and close the market after a year. We were worried that there would be no customers and that we might have to buy all the bulk products if they didn't sell. But as soon as we opened Almang Market, those worries disappeared. More people wanted them than we imagined, and more and more people visit us, so we're always thankful.
#The year 2021 for Almang Market
Q. Recently, large companies such as E-Mart and Amore Pacific have been coming up with measures to solve environmental issues.
A. It’s good to see companies changing. There are certain limitations in solving environmental problems with the sole effort of individuals so there are actually many aspects where companies can really help. For now, rather than trying to change the shell, it seems better to really focus on the ‘almang’. Large companies should try their best in their circle and individuals can put in effort in their daily lives, and we can co-exist to make a change. Businesses can use the power and money that they have to provide a variety of bulk products and lead the way to make more facilities to sanitize bulk containers, etc.
Q. Covid-19 has affected our lives greatly, and many people have been staying at home which lead to an increase of the use of delivery containers and disposable products. Were there any changes at the Almang Market?
A. You might be surprised to know, we don’t have an online store. It's one of the principles that we set when preparing for the store. We only operate offline to reduce waste and carbon emissions caused by courier services. Many people are surprised that we have only an offline store in the 21st century but when we tell them our purpose, they agree. We prefer analog rather than state-of-the-art.
Q. What is your goal for 2021?
A. Our goal is to have small shops like Almang Store all over the neighborhood, but it’ll take a lot of effort to do that. I think improving profit structures will be necessary. A sustainable profit structure is inevitable for a store to exist but there are difficulties regarding this currently. Many people might think that the number of customers equals profit, and that because we have a lot of customers, profit will follow, but the profit structure is actually not that good. The store mostly sells delivered products rather than self-made products but the delivered price is high. But we chose to reduce store margins because we were concerned about customers having difficulties because of high prices. Because of these barriers, it’s hard to actively recommend opening a store to people. So this year, we are making various efforts to create a structure where we can gladly recommend our visitors to get on board.
Q. Recently, many people, especially those in their 20s, seem to be interested in environmental issues. Is there any advice to those who want to save the environment, but are wondering where to start?
A. I’d like to tell them to practice kindly refusing. For example, most restaurants give us wet wipes. Wet wipes are also made of plastic. If you kindly refuse and wash your hands with water in the bathroom, you can reduce the use of plastic. And if you order delivery food, you can reduce the amount of garbage by refusing disposable spoons, forks, or side dishes.
Q. How would you like Almang Market to be remember?
A. Thankfully, many people think of our market as a special place. Please remember us as a cozy shop or convenience store in the neighborhood. Reducing waste and changing our actions for the environment isn’t something special or difficult. It’s for the Earth and for us, who live on Earth.