Tighter mainland China rubbish import policy hits Hong Kong street collectors hard
City’s most vulnerable feel pinch as prices tumble for recycled materials
An overhaul in mainland China’s policy on waste imports is shaking up Hong Kong’s recycling industry, with the most vulnerable frontline street collectors – often the city’s poorest and elderly – already hurting from its impact.
The Hong Kong Recycle Materials and Reproduction Business General Association, which represents the local recycling trade, announced that most firms would stop collecting wastepaper from Monday as prices tumble and the mainland clamps down on imports of “foreign rubbish”.
Sze Lai Shan, organiser of the non-profit Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), said the city had about a few thousand active street collectors. Elderly who subsist on their savings and community care funds as well as jobless middle-aged women comprised the bulk of the collectors, Sze said. She feared the waste ban would exacerbate their plight and impose heavier burdens on welfare groups.
Ahead of the ban, the Post spoke to two people who would be among those affected:
A single woman surnamed Cheung, in her 70s, has been collecting paper boxes and newspaper daily over the past five years after a bacterial infection in her left arm led to mounting medical bills. She used to be an odd jobs labourer, but she became unable to cope with simple tasks such as cleaning and cooking.
To pay her medical expenses, collecting wastepaper seemed the “easiest” option. Cheung wakes up every day at dawn for breakfast before setting off with her trolley from a subdivided room she rents in a building in Quarry Bay.
Breakfast every day is a piece of white bread, she said, and she spends at least 10 hours, pacing up and down the shops and offices along King’s Road on the lookout for discarded cardboard. When she has collected a trolley load, she delivers it to the local recycling collection point.
“If I’m lucky, I can earn $120 a day, but that will take up to four trips to the collection point and that can be exhausting,” she said.
She has a small amount of savings and a $2,000 monthly old-age allowance, which she described as barely sufficient.
“The more I earn, the more food I can have for breakfast,” she added. “An extra piece of bread would be nice.”
A dip in the price of her collection would hit her hard, but she has no other option.
“I feel hopeless about the situation. But it’s better to continue what I’ve been doing than doing nothing at all.”
Another collector, surnamed Liu, is in her early 80s and has no family members living in Hong Kong. She lives alone in a flat in Sham Shui Po, just minutes away from the local waste collection point, which she has been visiting every day for over 10 years.
With almost nothing in her bank account and only $2,000 of old-age allowance her month, Liu tries to make ends meet by putting in seven hours every day collecting waste paper and plastics. She ends her workday once she makes around $80.
“I wake up at 6am every morning and go around convenience stores to ask for plastic and paper for recycling,” she said.
She has already seen her earnings drop ahead of the ban. “Originally, I could earn $1 for each kilogram of plastic,” she claimed. “Now the recyclers at collection points are becoming stricter with what kind of plastic I bring them so they only buy them for half the price.”
Liu was not aware of the waste ban on the mainland, but she did notice a drastic price decline over the past few days.
“I was quite surprised as I always considered the recycling industry as something stable. I rely on it heavily for my daily expenses, so I hope this won’t affect me for a long period.”