Shoes, books, bags and clothes. These are common things people desire and what they spend on in malls. And they are also among the things Teng Hou Teck finds abandoned outside of lifts, at the alleys behind shophouses, beside trashbins, down by the corridors… And just about everywhere.
But while most see these abandoned goods as trash, 78-year-old Mr Teng sees the answer to his daily meals.
Mr Teng goes around with his push-cart and relies on his keen sense to pick-out tin cans, drink cans, large cardboard boxes, newspaper and other discarded items. He collects and sells them to recycling companies or middlemen who would then transport them to recycling centres.
Environmental friendly habits aside, recycling has an upside: it is livelihood.
Mr Teng turns 80 in just two years. He used to work in a convenience shop in Bedok but became “too old” to be employed though he is still relatively fit. He does not have any children to support him.
“This job is not illegal and it feeds me,” said Mr Teng in mandarin. “Besides, there is nothing else to do.”
Said Mr Teng: “Rather than beg and borrow from friends and relatives, I rather keep my pride and work hard as a karang guni man.”
He wakes up at the wee hours of 4am to collect the first round of rubbish with a supermarket trolley, takes a simple breakfast of bread with butter and sugar at 8am, and sifts through his morning finds. One reason for him going through his finds is that he may just “hit a jackpot” like finding some cash left in the trash by accident.
“There are so many things that are worth more than they look,” said Mr Teng. When he collects enough discarded books, he sells them to second hand book stores.
More importantly, the reason why Mr Teng sorts out his finds is that Thomas, the middleman, whom Mr Teng sells the bulk of his finds to, requires him to do so.
After picking out the occasional item he can sell or re-use, Mr Teng then moves on to sending the rest for recycling. The skinny old man then pushes his heavy pile of finds in a supermarket trolley to the carpark by the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple at Chinatown.
“Yes it is heavy, but the heavier it is the happier I am,” said Mr Teng. How much he earns depends on the weight of his finds for the day. For example, a kilogram of paper or cardboard is worth 10 cents.
Although there are higher margins from reselling books or even cardboard boxes, Mr Teng explained that it is not often that they stumble upon these better deals. Hence, he is grateful to middlemen like Thomas who buy the recyclables from him before transporting them to the recycling centre, something which he is unable to do with just a trolley.
Making ends meet
At the carpark where Thomas and his lorry is parked daily at 8am, great piles of recyclables are stacked up. There, you can find an expensive Harrods biscuit tin lying nonchalantly beside a Khong Guan biscuit tin amidst a pile of other metal scraps.
In Singapore, hundreds of elderly eke out a living seeking thrown out items that can be recycled. Some of them hawk around and collect cans from coffeeshop. Other more entrepreneurial ones like Mr Teng have agreements with shops for their trash.
Like Mr Teng, when they think they have collected enough, these elderly karung guni’s then bring their pile over to Thomas.
As Mr Teng eagerly emptied his stash onto the single green metallic weighing machine. He held his breath as the scale tells his earnings for the day’s work. Dinner depends on this.
Thomas is one of the three groups of middleman recycler situated in Chinatown. Like the rest, he is an informal recycler. He further sorts out trash from what he collects from the elderly and saves them from an unnecessarily short lifespan by transporting them for recycling.
“When I look at garbage, I don’t just see garbage. I see them as paper, plastic, glass, metal and whatever other materials that are usually recycled,” said Thomas in Mandarin. “It’s a game of luck too. You earn more if you get more valuable recyclables like metals and electronics products as compared to paper and plastic. Sometimes, things are rejected too.”
Indeed, ten minutes later, a couple of wet cardboard boxes got rejected from Mr Teng’s pile. Minus that, his tall pile earned him a good $10 today.
According to Thomas who started out five years ago, each elderly earn about $8 on average and $15 on a single good day, for every trolley they bring. They are given 10cents per kilograms for paper products, which is usually the bulk of what is retrieved. For the other materials such as electronics, it depends on how much valuable components it holds.
“We really don’t earn much but there is a certain sense of satisfaction for providing that little income for the elderly although they make up only about 40% of our collection,” said Thomas, who collected recyclables from companies who are moving or renovating as well.
But he added that “we are essentially still a business though I do try to help here and there.”
For example, when Thomas heard one of his regular customer was put into a home where he found himself bored and trapped, he pulled some strings and connections to get him out. Thomas then took him in and currently provides meals and a little pocket money for him in return for help sorting out the recyclables in the day.
Nonetheless, he maintains that he is definitely not a charity. A few years back, he held annual buffets to reward the elderly who sell their recyclables to him. But he has since stopped doing so as he realised they are a pragmatic lot. They flocked to the other companies once they offer better prices for their recyclables.
Competition is stiff; two other middlemen companies gather in the evening to collect recyclables. Some like Ms Chye run registered companies by day and would only go to Chinatown in the evenings.
“It is really a lot of work to sort out the recyclables and it has to be manual in case some things like a metal binder holding a bunch of paper gets into the paper pile. It may spoil machines during recycling,” said Ms Chye. “So much work and the profit margin is getting slimmer with the bad economy.”
It used to be better, she explained, when the samsui women were here earlier and provided much more business for them. Now, with the prices of the recyclables fallen alongside the economy, middlemen like herself earn nominally and go unrecognised despite having positive social and environment impacts.
Such collection sites are important social nodes
For example, St James Settlement, a registered charity, in Hong Kong, stations their social workers at such collection points to find out more about the elderly who sell their recyclables there and their needs.
Josephine Lee Senior Manager of St Jame’s Settlement in Hong Kong said: “One or two of our social workers visit these collection points regularly. We make friends with the elderly, who are very independent, and we respect their independence. Sometimes we see a tear in one of the lady’s seot saam (Cantonese for blouse) , and we ask her to take the extra seot saam that we brought along by chance. Other times we notice that someone is missing from the collection point and we would ask around about his whereabouts. Sometimes they are sick and need medical attention.”
That’s when social nodes such as these collection sites form efficient means of social service delivery.
According to a New York Times report, middleman recyclers handle as much as 20 per cent of waste in some parts of the world. Yet their efforts go largely unrecognised and do not enjoy the benefits of the formal economy such as insurance and pension benefits.
Filling a gap
Nonetheless, middleman recyclers like Thomas and Ms Chye form part of a vibrant informal economy that provides a viable source of income for the elderly who otherwise may not find employment. They bridge an important gap and their collection routine form important social nodes for reaching out to at-risk groups of elderly.
In Singapore, according to the National Environment Agency’s statistics in 2009, about 50% of our solid waste gets recycled. This means that 50% of our trash may become part of Mr Teng’s barter. These discarded goods go through a series of recycling processes before finding a new home and a new lease of life.
And meanwhile, the recycling allows Mr Teng to keep his way of life too.