‘Not enough for coffee’: Karung guni men, cardboard collectors hit hard as scrap prices and volume fall
SINGAPORE: In the sweltering heat, karung guni (rag and bone) man Goh Joi Kim hauled a variety of junk off his lorry and into a metal cage. There were old standing fans, newspapers and the usual cardboard boxes.
The 71-year-old collects these items from housing estates in Hougang and Sengkang. And every two days, he goes to an industrial estate in Ang Mo Kio to sell them. It is backbreaking work that comes with little reward.
For instance, 1kg of newspapers gets him S$0.14, while the same amount of cardboard is worth a paltry S$0.05. “It’s very difficult now,” he told CNA, sweat dripping off his face. “Five cents is not enough to even buy a cup of coffee.”
Informal recyclers, who already contend with rising fuel prices, said newspapers and cardboard used to be worth at least S$0.20 and S$0.10 per kg, respectively.
The sector has been hit hard by falling prices of scrap material in Singapore after China banned imports of “foreign garbage” like unsorted scrap paper and plastic waste since January 2018.
The ban has led to an excess stockpile of scrap material like cardboard and newspapers, industry players told CNA, adding that the US-China trade war has also made matters worse.
The volume of scrap material collected has gone down as well, karung guni men said, citing lifestyle changes like increasing consumption of news online and a greater awareness of official recycling efforts.
Upstream, traders that buy scrap material from informal recyclers before selling them on to larger players are likewise finding things more difficult.
Tay Paper Recycling, which runs a collection point at the Ang Mo Kio industrial estate and exports the scrap to paper mills overseas, has had to slash the buying price of used cardboard by about 60 per cent to S$0.04 per kg, in tandem with falling export prices.
“Our export price for carton boxes is about 11 to 12 cents, fluctuating more on the lower side,” its business development manager Andrew Tay told CNA. “So as any business, how much can you buy your raw material?
Mr Tay said the company was only making a S$0.01 profit on the used cardboard per kg, adding that he still needs to factor in transport and labour costs. “So, it’s really tough for us,” he said.
He attributed the falling prices to China’s ban, pointing out that the recyclables “still have to go somewhere”.
"Everybody has so much inventory and they want to sell it off. Buyers can pick and choose the cheapest and best," he explained.
"That has caused an oversupply situation (which means) prices will go down."
Mr Tay said China – one of the world’s major producers of finished products like plastic bottles and paper – is producing less as a result of the trade war with the US. This means there is less demand for scrap material as well.
“Because of the export restrictions, the need to buy scrap material reduces,” he said. “So, that causes prices to go down.”
Mr Tay called the situation a “double whammy” adding: “I assume all my competitors are in the same situation.”
Nearby, Huat Seng Cleaning Company – a trader which sells on the scrap to larger recyclers – said the selling price for used cardboard has gone down from S$0.20 a year ago to S$0.09 now. The price of old newspapers has also fallen from S$0.20 to S$0.15.
“I have to decrease my price, or else I cannot sustain the business,” its sales development manager L K Tan told CNA, adding that profits have gone down 80 per cent over the past year.
The firm now buys cardboard and newspapers at S$0.05 and S$0.14 per kg, respectively.
DECREASING VOLUME AND NEWSPRINT
Ms Tan similarly attributed the falling prices to China’s ban, adding that the slowdown in Singapore’s trade environment means the volume of scrap material collected has also gone down.
According to the latest official data, total trade decreased in September on a year-on-year basis, while both imports and exports declined in the same month.
“The market volume has gone down,” Ms Tan said, noting that business is not good. “Import and export is down, so (companies) are buying less and throwing less.”
Ms Tan said another reason for the decreasing volume of scrap is the decreasing circulation of newspapers as news consumers shift online.
According to publisher Singapore Press Holdings, the daily average print circulation of the Straits Times went down from 263,200 in August 2017 to 232,500 in August 2018. In contrast, its digital circulation went up from 120,400 to 138,200 in the same period.
“People use the computer to see the news,” Ms Tan said. “They never buy the newspaper, so the volume becomes less.”
One karung guni man who only gave his name as Mr Tan said he used to be able to collect up to 800kg of newspapers from HDB blocks in a day. Now he only manages about 100kg.
“Now where got newspaper? All online,” he said as he hurried into his lorry before driving off.
SHIFTING TO FORMAL RECYCLING
Other karung guni men said the volume collected has gone down as companies and individuals seem to be embracing formal recycling.
Mr Peter Shia, who collects newspapers and magazines from businesses, said he could collect 100kg of the material previously but only manages 10kg a day now.
“They are wrapping it up as a parcel then sending it to other countries,” the 64-year-old said. “They recycle it themselves.”
This comes as Singapore moves to make recycling easier for the masses, with recycling bins and collection services provided at HDB estates, private landed properties and private apartments.
From April 2018, new public housing developments and non-landed private residential developments have also been equipped with individual household chutes for recyclables, while reverse vending machines have increasingly sprung up islandwide.
Mr Goh said he is collecting less scrap now too. “Last time, people throw away more,” he lamented. “Now, people put it in the recycling bin.”
The challenges do not stop there.
Cardboard collectors are facing stiffer competition from others like foreign workers who similarly collect scrap material from stores and dumpsters before selling them to traders and recyclers, said Mr Nafiz Kamarudin, founder of Happy People Helping People.
The volunteer-run group supports those in need, including cardboard collectors, with meal vouchers at different eateries and outings to places like Gardens by the Bay.
“Although the shops keep the cardboard boxes at the back, it’s first-come, first-served,” Mr Nafiz told CNA. “So, a lot of these old folks will lose out if the younger ones get it first.”
Mr Nafiz said the elderly cardboard collectors he has met include an 89-year-old woman who pushes her cart from her Whampoa neighbourhood to a selling point in Toa Payoh, a 45-minute journey, every day.
Some have conditions like Alzheimer's, he said, while others travel along busy roads and jaywalk with their goods.
"You ask them: 'Aunty, why are you doing this? Isn’t it dangerous?' A lot of them will tell you: 'I live so long already, I die also no problem,'" he added.
Mr Nafiz said they still do it because “even a few cents make a lot of difference”, although they rue the measly price of used cardboard now.
"They said it's very low," he said. "Obviously, 4 cents per kg is ridiculously low for anyone."
But he acknowledged that traders and recyclers had to consider market conditions when deciding their rates.
"We cannot force (them) to increase the price," he stated. "I don’t think it’s right because they are doing business.
"If they are not earning enough, we cannot do anything about it."