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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Hong Kong's ageing cardboard collectors face uncertain future

There are around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, but China's imminent waste ban could wipe out this informal economy

Hong Kong cardboard collectors like Au Fung-lan may find work drying up on China's new policy. AFP
Hong Kong cardboard collectors like Au Fung-lan may find work drying up on China's new policy. AFP

Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work.

At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people.

This picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows the hands of cardboard collector Au Fung-lan in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. - Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets, but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work. At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people. (Photo by Isaac LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH HongKong-social-environment-elderly-cardboard-collector, FEATURE by Yan ZHAO
Ms Au says 20 years of cardboard collecting has misshapen her fingers. AFP

They pick up discarded packing boxes from shops, markets and residential buildings, selling them for a few dollars to recycling depots, where cardboard is more valuable than plastic.

The depots then ship it abroad - up to 95 per cent of it to mainland China in 2016, according to local authorities - as Hong Kong has no recycling plants of its own to convert it into usable materials.

However, as China closes the door to imported rubbish, even from semi-autonomous regions such as Hong Kong, Ms Au's livelihood is under threat.

Beijing no longer wants the country to be a global trash can and has already started phasing out taking solid waste - a process it expects to complete by 2020.

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Waste of money

Pragmatic Ms Au says she tries not to think too much about her work drying up.

She continues to put in 14-hour days so she can afford a carer for herself and her 77-year-old husband, also a cardboard collector, when they finally decide to give up work.

Hong Kong cardboard collectors like Au Fung-lan may find work drying up on China's new policy. AFP
Ms Au prepares her load for the recycling depot. AFP

"Some people think our work is arduous and look down on us. They say: 'You are so old, go home and enjoy life. Why collect cardboard?'" Ms Au says.

"But if I can still work, I don't want to rely on others."

Ms Au turned to cardboard collecting after being laid off as a factory worker and courier.

She has three grown-up children with jobs but does not want to depend on them for help.

By working from pre-dawn until dusk, she earns up to HK$300 (around Dh140) daily, selling 300 kilograms of cardboard at HK$1 per kilo.

It is a phenomenal work rate and much higher than the average collector who makes around HK$47.30 a day, according to concern group Waste Pickers Platform (WPP).

Ms Au attributes her bent fingers to years of tearing cardboard with her hands to flatten it.

She has been hit by a car twice, injuring her shoulders and feet, as she pushes her trolley along a busy road to the local depot in the residential neighbourhood of Kwai Fong.

This picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows cardboard collector Au Fung-lan (bottom L) pushing her trolley full of cardboard through an intersection on her way to a recycling depot in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. - Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets, but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work. At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people. (Photo by Isaac LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH HongKong-social-environment-elderly-cardboard-collector, FEATURE by Yan ZHAO
Ms Au (bottom L) pushing her trolley through an intersection on her way to a recycling depot. AFP

Her trolley and cardboard have also been confiscated several times by government hygiene inspectors.

But Ms Au says she enjoys what she calls the freedom of working for herself.

"I'm not afraid. I do it every day," she says.

As unofficial freelance workers, collectors like Ms Au have no legal recognition or employment rights.

China's imminent waste ban could wipe out this informal economy, which NGO workers say is key to some of the city's elderly.

Eighty per cent of the collectors are over 60, with the oldest in their 90s. Eighty per cent are women and around a third work at least an eight-hour day, according to WPP.

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Many are doing it to supplement their pensions and savings in a city where the wealth gap is growing - the cost of living in Hong Kong ranked fourth highest in the world in 2018, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"Cardboard collecting is part of a sub-economy activity which supports grassroots residents' livelihoods," says WPP spokesman Tang Wing-him.

WPP estimates at least 193 tonnes of waste paper is delivered to recycling depots by the elderly collectors each day.

Jacky Lau, director of a local business association for the waste and recycling industry, says the China ban could not only wipe out work for collectors like Ms Au, but would be devastating for the cities' depots too.

This picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows cardboard collector Au Fung-lan pushing her trolley full of cardboard along a road on her way to a recycling depot in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. - Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets, but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work. At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people. (Photo by Isaac LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH HongKong-social-environment-elderly-cardboard-collector, FEATURE by Yan ZHAO
Ms Au's work is a vital part of Hong Kong life. AFP

If those businesses were forced to close there could be a "waste paper crisis" in Hong Kong as rubbish piles up, eventually ending up in landfill sites, he says.

The city relies on landfills to dispose of most of its waste but they are already overloaded.

Mr Lau says he hopes Hong Kong will still be allowed to export some waste to China, given its status as a Special Administrative Region of the country. Other countries are not an option due to the cost of shipping, he says.

He also wants the Hong Kong government to speed up a plan to build a local recycling plant to process waste paper.

With the future uncertain, Ms Au and her husband at least have a roof over their heads - they own an apartment they bought in the 1970s, which gives them some security.

This picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows cardboard collector Au Fung-lan (C) taking a break from collecting cardboard to eat breakfast at a cafe in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. - Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets, but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work. At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people. (Photo by Isaac LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH HongKong-social-environment-elderly-cardboard-collector, FEATURE by Yan ZHAO
Ms Au takes a break from collecting cardboard. AFP

But it also precludes them from receiving government subsidies, except for a small monthly allowance for the over-70s, which Ms Au's husband receives on top of his pension as a former bus driver.

Their children have urged her to give up cardboard collecting, but she sees it as an investment in her future.

"I told them: 'If you think I bring shame on you, then don't call me Mum when you see me,'" she says.

This picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows cardboard collector Au Fung-lan pushing her trolley full of cardboard along a road on her way to a recycling depot in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. - Her fingers are bent from 20 years of collecting cardboard from Hong Kong's streets, but Au Fung-lan says she has no desire to give up the gruelling work. At 67-years-old she is one of around 2,900 collectors, mainly women over the age of 60, whose frail figures are a familiar sight, guiding trolleys loaded with cardboard through a city clogged with traffic and people. (Photo by Isaac LAWRENCE / AFP) / TO GO WITH HongKong-social-environment-elderly-cardboard-collector, FEATURE by Yan ZHAO
Pragmatic: Ms Au pushing in the Kwai Fong district of Hong Kong. AFP