Falling price of waste paper hits scavengers
While Europe's leaders struggle with bailouts, bankruptcies and a possibly failing currency, the fallout is being felt by the poorest on the streets of Hong Kong.
The army of elderly people who collect waste paper to eke out a meagre existence faces a financial battering as the price of what the rich world throws away in the form of packaging slumps.
The effect hit home to Mrs Lau, who is in her 50s. She works as a janitor but spent yesterday's public holiday rummaging for cardboard in a Lan Kwai Fong back alley.
'I used to earn HK$1 for a kilogram of cardboard, but it has been selling for 70 cents in the past two months,' she said. 'I can collect only about HK$20 worth of cardboard in a day. I may not earn as much now, but I have to do it if I want to eat.'
Another collector, who chose not to be named, in D'Aguilar Street in Lan Kwai Fong, in his 60s, said: 'I can only earn about 70 cents per kilogram now, but I have no choice. I have to make a living.'
The drop in waste-paper prices is being felt across the globe, as analysts forecast a subdued pre-Christmas peak season from July, which affects demand for key users of recycled packaging such as toy and electronics manufacturers.
And this affects the 'street' price of waste paper and cardboard in Hong Kong and Europe - especially Britain and the Netherlands, which are Europe's biggest exporters of waste paper and cardboard to China.
Steve Eminton, editor of the website letsrecycle.com, said waste- paper merchants in Britain had also seen a series of price reductions over the past few months.
He said Chinese buyers of cardboard in Britain were 'reporting a lower level of inquiries than expected for the 2012 Christmas period'.
'Chinese cardboard mills and box makers have good stocks of finished product so will not be buying as much used cardboard from Britain.
'There are hopes that the market for used cardboard will start to stabilise, although it may fall below GBP80 [HK$968] a tonne in July, with some expectation that it could level off at around GBP75 for some time.'
Hong Kong waste-paper merchant Yong Xiaofang, who owns Fat Kee Environment Recycle Company, said she used to receive 10 tonnes of cardboard and newspapers a day from sellers, but only gets six tonnes a day now.
'A lot of the elderly who sell us cardboard were very angry that we don't pay as much now,' said Yong. 'They yelled at me and thought I was cheating them, until they learned from the news that it's the economy - not us - that decides this price.'
She said some collectors sprayed water on the cardboard to make it heavier and bring a higher price.
Simon Ellin, chief executive of Britain's Recycling Association, said last month: 'I think we are seeing one of the worst market situations in a long time, with a crippling recession. Recycling, particularly of paper, is a good indication of how the economy is going. If people are not buying goods, then the packaging does not appear on the market.'
Official trade figures show Britain exported 180,478 tonnes of used cardboard, mostly to China, in April, down 8.3 per cent compared with April 2011, while the volume in March fell 18 per cent year on year.