When cardboard is gold

Zaihan tries the back-breaking work one afternoon and develops new respect for the collectors.

SINGAPORE - I keep that $2 note in my wallet's coin compartment. This way, I'll not spend it by accident.

Sure, the amount is small change by today's standards. Yet, this $2 note holds special meaning for me.

It was earned through sweat, and very nearly tears, and it reminds me of how, for some people, money is earned with much difficulty.

Toiling in the sun, picking up things that people discard, that is how they make a living.

On Thursday afternoon, I joined their ranks briefly at Serangoon Road, in search of cardboard boxes to be sold to recyclers. I wanted to find out if it is possible to earn a living this way.

My hunt began after seeing an advertisement on Facebook. One recycler was willing to pay 10 cents for 1kg of used cardboard cartons. There must be an error because the payout is too little, I thought.

But intrigued, I decided to give it a go.

A daily reality

At Veerasamy Road and Clive Street off Serangoon Road, 9 to 10 cents per kg is the daily reality for some senior citizens who form the lines at the two cardboard collection points.

They eagerly wait for the weighing scales to show a favourable weight.

"Gor chap kilo (50kg in Hokkien)... gor kor ($5)," Mr Lock Lee Jin, 50, who mans the collection point at Veerasamy Road, shouts to sweaty uncle Tan Kim Seng, 80.

It is demoralising to see others, who carry smaller hauls, being paid in coins. One elderly woman left with $1.50 after turning in 15kg of cardboard.

Many are familiar faces who return several times each day to the collection point, hauling the cardboard on trolleys, the wheels of which are badly in need of lubrication. Some carry their precious cargo on trikes and supermarket carts.

For bachelor Tay Tee Tee, 62, who earns "enough" - between $20 and $25 each day - it is a matter of survival.

"If I don't work (by collecting cardboard), I don't get to eat."

I ask another man, Mr Tan, who lives near Lavender Street, why he works so hard for so little.

The widower initially grumbles about the small payout but waves me away saying, "the more I complain, the more time I will be wasting".

He stoically pushes his home-made cart and disappears in the direction of Cuff Road.

I initially did not understand what he meant.

But I was about to discover that this world of theirs can be vicious, particularly if you are lazy or too soft-hearted.

Streets of gold

In the back lanes of Serangoon Road, time is money. Turf is jealously guarded. And the discarded cardboard box is "gold".

Later that night, I meet Mr Thirumal Nathan, 44, who manages the other collection point at Clive Street. He buys between 5 and 7 tonnes of cardboard each day.

He says: "Cardboards are as rare as gold in Serangoon Road. You'll be lucky if you find any left in the open."

Mr Nathan, who has been on the job for 16 years, explains that he buys cardboard for 9 cents per kg and sells it to recycling plants for 18 cents per kg. Newspapers are bought for 12 cents per kg and sold for 28 cents per kg.

This barely covers his own costs which include fuel and worker fees.

Mr Nathan is known for his generosity. He gives his collectors hongbao at Chinese New Year and often buys food for them too.l

His oldest contributor is a 90-year-old woman and his hardest working is a man who regularly turns in 400kg of cardboard, for almost $40 a day.

Trying it out

I set off to try to earn a wage collecting cardboard.

Early in the day, my game plan of targeting only shops selling large items is torn to shreds. Scavengers can make heavy cardboard disappear rather quickly even when they are not trained magicians.

At the end of my first hour on the prowl, I spot a stack of cardboard boxes left near a drain somewhere near Hindoo Road.

Just when I was about to lift the cardboard, a head pops out from a back door and shouts at me in what seems like Mandarin. The unfriendly eyes seem to be saying "don't touch my stash".

Later, I am humbled when a 75-year-old shopkeeper at Norris Road, Mr S. Veerappan, lays it out painfully for me: "You're too slow. The uncles and aunties are the first ones to grab the cardboard boxes whenever we leave them outside our shop."

With my trolley still empty, I become a little desperate. It is embarrassing when an auntie I met earlier is already heading back to the Veerasamy Road collection point for a second time with a respectable load of cardboard. She just smiles and nods - she must have recognised me for the amateur that I am.

I start asking complete strangers, like an elderly woman feeding pigeons, whether she knows where I can scavenge for cardboard. She shrugs and waves me away.

Beside her is a supermarket trolley. Could she be a rival merely protecting her turf from a newbie?

Employees at the other 10 shops I go to also tell me they have no more boxes to give away.

Finally! At one motorcycle accessories shop at Desker Road, I score my first and only load of cardboard.

But I get a warning from the owner, Mr Steven Teh: "Some old women will scold you for stealing their rice bowl. You're able-bodied, so there's no reason for you to be collecting cardboard boxes."

My hardest earned $2

As I was securing my loot, a middle-aged man hovered dangerously close to my flattened cardboard boxes placed just a metre away.

I give him the death stare.

He backs away.

Almost three hours into the hunt, I am feeling the strain of a body that is used to working in an office.

My trolley has only three working wheels. It trundles on as I push it all the way to Clive Street, some 400m away, gritting my teeth.

With sweat dripping from my sideburns, I proudly placed my cardboard on the weighing scale.

A helper shouts to Mr Nathan: "Aneh, 16 kilo!"

I unceremoniously shuffle to his table but I walk away happy because Mr Nathan overpaid me. He has given me $2.

I know I am clearly not cut out for this job. I'm competing with elderly men and women who know the streets like the back of their hands.

They have earned my respect.

While I am able to walk away easily from this difficult job, they have no choice.

This is the only livelihood they have.

The collectors

Mr Tay Tee Tee, 62, can haul more “cargo” with his trike. The trike can carry between 70kg and 80kg of cardboard each time. He makes between $20 and $25 a day, surviving on a hand-to-mouth existence.

He says in Malay: “If I don’t work, I don’t get to eat. I’m single and there’s nobody to look after me. Falling sick means I don’t earn any money for that day. I take (scavenge for cardboards) only when people give sincerely. I don’t steal and I don’t need much to survive each day. I don’t complain because I can still find work here in Serangoon Road.”

Widower Tan Kim Seng, 80, takes a breather and drinks up his soft drink after hauling in the night’s load of cardboard scavenged from the streets and alleys in the vicinity of Serangoon Road.

He says: “I make barely enough. My drink costs about $1.50 and this trip I made about $5. But it’s good enough for me. I have no children to support me. I reach my home in Lavender Street at about 3am. By 6am, I’m awake and I start looking for cardboard again.”

We had asked this woman, seen feeding pigeons somewhere at a lane near Hindoo Road, if she knew where journalist Zaihan Mohamed Yusof could find cardboard boxes. She simply shrugged.

But it is hard to fault with somebody for not helping because in the cardboard collection business, everybody is your rival. The supermarket cart beside her is one of the ways to transport used cardboard boxes.

The collectors work hard for what little they get and can make many journeys in one day.

In a span of five hours, one camera-shy woman had successfully returned to the Veerasamy Road and Clive Street collection points at least four times with loads of cardboard boxes.

We do not know her name, but we know she is a hard worker who starts scavenging for cardboard in the afternoon till late at night.

The ‘manager’ 

Mr Thirumal Nathan, 44, who manages the cardboard collection point at Clive Street, off Serangoon Road, stands proudly beside the wall of flattened cardboard boxes.

He moves between 5 tonnes and 7 tonnes daily to recycling plants and pays out 9 cents for each kilogramme of used cardboard. “For most of the people who sell their cardboard to us, this is the only work they can do at their own pace.

“These elderly people may have sons who are doctors or top civil servants, but they still want to be independent and earn their own money. These people don’t like it if their children find out about their sideline jobs.

“Some are so protective of their cardboard that they do not allow you to touch them. They prefer to unload the cardboard themselves even when we offer to help.”

The ‘weigher’ 

Mr Lock Lee Jin, 50, sits on his trusted China-made weighing scale. He is the man who weighs all the cardboard that is sold to him.

He has been in this business for five years and sees as many as 50 people dropping off recyclables at his collection point each day at Veerasamy Road.

He says in Malay: “I have seen sad cases like this 80-year-old woman who still comes to me to sell cardboard. Her son doesn’t give her enough for her to live comfortably. How can you do that to any elderly woman? But thankfully, this woman still has the strength and will to support herself.”

The collection point

Stacked to the brim. At the Clive Street collection point, a worker loads and flattens cardboard before the lorry takes the load to a recycling plant, where it is sold for double the price. Mr Thirumal Nathan says that he buys the cardboard for 9 cents per kg and sells it for 18 cents. 

zaihan@sph.com.sg


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