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HK Magazine Archive

Earnest Wong is Buying Cardboard to Help Hong Kong's Elderly

He's the co-founder of The Second Box, a social enterprise that buys cardboard boxes from elderly scavengers for three times the market price before reselling them. 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 11:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:16pm

What’s the story behind The Second Box? While moving house, I found out that a brand new cardboard box sells for $10-20 in shops. That’s when my friend and co-founder of The Second Box, Herbert Wu, came up with the idea of buying used boxes from elderly scavengers instead of wasting money on new ones. Herbert offered to buy a box from a woman for $5, which she happily accepted. 

Why did you start the company? Elderly scavengers earn an average of 70 cents for every kilo of cardboard, which is around the weight of one medium-sized cardboard box. The elderly have spent a lifetime working hard, so why can’t we give them a stable retired life? Why are they excluded by society? But the sad truth is that the recycling business is struggling too. Cardboard waste is sold to mainland paper factories for roughly $1,300 per ton. After paying rent and wages, the profit margin isn’t that high. That’s why the elderly get so little. But what if we bought used boxes from scavengers at a higher price, and at the same time reused the boxes? With this in mind, we submitted a business proposal as our entry in a business competition at our university. That’s how we were awarded $100,000 to start The Second Box.

What’s a typical day like for you at The Second Box? Four times a week, we push a trolley out onto the streets of Sheung Wan and collect cardboard boxes from elderly scavengers. We meet with them at a specific time and place and buy their boxes, for $2 per kilo. We then clean, stack and label them at our office before reselling them to shops and the public. I’ve also been organizing craft workshops for kids and parents to educate them about upcycling and social issues like the wealth gap, the aging population and poverty, so that kids are aware of the stories behind these craft projects.

You must have some memorable tales. Last November, my teammates and I were trying to find cardboard boxes in Sheung Wan when we passed an alley and saw an elderly woman with a huge stack of them. We rushed towards her and asked if she would sell them, but she ran away. She probably thought we were a bunch of hooligans! Another elderly woman who took the trash out for a small supermarket was reluctant to sell us her boxes at first. Now she accumulates a stack of boxes at a secret location for us to collect on a regular basis. She tells us to pay her back later, and has even started introducing us to some of her fellow scavenger friends. She keeps inviting us to eat ice cream with her, and wants to treat us to yum cha. The best part is seeing this trust and friendship we have built with these elderly people. It took us a while to get to know our contributors, but we now have a community of about 12-13 elderly people who sell us boxes regularly. They aren’t our beneficiaries: They are our business partners.

Is it ever a difficult job? Always. When we started, our main customers were dried seafood stores in Sheung Wan. We had to knock on every single door. At first store owners didn’t care. The first batch of 10 boxes we sold took hours of scouring the streets under the blazing sun—all for $5! I couldn’t believe how little I earned having spent so much effort. It was discouraging: I’d just graduated from university and my parents were urging me to find a steady job. They thought I was picking up trash for a living. But now our business has gained a lot more attention, especially since we started selling boxes to the public, and my dad is showing more interest. While it’s a very tough job, I won’t give up on this business any time soon.