When Cardboard is Gold

Pictures by: 
Ariffin Jamar
Report by: 
Zaihan Mohamed Yusof

A daily reality

At Veerasamy Road and Clive Street off Serangoon Road, 9 to 10 cents per kg is the daily reality for some senior citizens who form the lines at the two cardboard collec- tion points.

They eagerly wait for the weighing scales to show a favourable weight.

“Gor chap kilo (50kg in Hokkien)... gor kor ($5),” Mr Lock Lee Jin, 50, who mans the collection point at Veerasamy Road, shouts to sweaty uncle Tan Kim Seng, 80.

It is demoralising to see others, who car- ry smaller hauls, being paid in coins. One elderly woman left with $1.50 after turning in 15kg of cardboard.

Many are familiar faces who return sev- eral times each day to the collection point, hauling the cardboard on trolleys, the wheels of which are badly in need of lubri- cation. Some carry their precious cargo on trikes and supermarket carts.

For bachelor Tay Tee Tee, 62, who earns “enough” – between $20 and $25 each day – it is a matter of survival.

“If I don’t work (by collecting card- board), I don’t get to eat.”

I ask another man, Mr Tan, who lives near Lavender Street, why he works so hard for so little.

The widower initially grumbles about the small payout but waves me away say- ing, “the more I complain, the more time I will be wasting”.

He stoically pushes his home-made cart and disappears in the direction of Cuff Road.

I initially did not understand what he meant.

But I was about to discover that this world of theirs can be vicious, particularly if you are lazy or too soft-hearted.

Streets of gold

In the back lanes of Serangoon Road, time is money. Turf is jealously guarded. And the discarded cardboard box is “gold”.

Later that night, I meet Mr Thirumal Nathan, 44, who manages the other collec- tion point at Clive Street. He buys between 5 and 7 tonnes of cardboard each day.

He says: “Cardboards are as rare as gold in Serangoon Road. You’ll be lucky if you find any left in the open.”

Mr Nathan, who has been on the job for 16 years, explains that he buys cardboard for 9 cents per kg and sells it to recycling plants for 18 cents per kg. Newspapers are bought for 12 cents per kg and sold for 28 cents per kg.

This barely covers his own costs which include fuel and worker fees.

Mr Nathan is known for his generosity. He gives his collectors hongbao at Chinese New Year and often buys food for them too.l

His oldest contributor is a 90-year-old woman and his hardest working is a man who regularly turns in 400kg of cardboard, for almost $40 a day.

The article related to these pictures was first published in The New Paper on Sunday on February 16