An alliance of groups who interviewed hundreds of elderly cardboard recyclers have found that they collect around 193 tons of cardboard every day – at least 20 per cent of the city’s total amount of cardboard recycling.

Those who collect cardboard every day gather an average of 35 kilograms per run, earning HK$24.9 each time. This comes out to an average of HK$716 per month.

The survey interviewed 505 cardboard recyclers, of which over 400 were female. 43 per cent of them were over 70 years old, whilst the oldest one was 96 years old.

cardboard recycler
Photo: Handout.

Most of the interviewees said they have to collect and sell cardboard to earn a living or to supplement their wages from work, as more than 60 per cent of them earned less than HK$5,000 per month. Less than 30 per cent received money from their children.

Only 29 per cent of interviewees who were over 70 years old received the old age living allowance from the government, lower than the general average of 40 per cent.

Miss Au, 67, said she has been collecting cardboard in the Kwai Tsing area for ten years. She said her savings exceeded the limit permitted to receive the old age allowance, and she did not want money from her children.

She said she and her husband – who collect foam containers – only earn around HK$200 each day working between 6am and midnight.

cardboard recycler

Au said she was often driven out by Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) officers for illegally occupying a public area. “They told me to go to another street, but I was kicked out of every street,” she said.

She said FEHD officers fined her HK$500 and confiscated her cart last year after telling her that a district councillor had filed a complaint against the recyclers.

Miss Wong, 66, said she was homeless as she has no contact with her two children and does not have money to pay rent. She said she did not want to ask for subsidies from the government as she can still work.

cardboard recycler
Miss Au and Miss Wong. Photo: Handout.

Wong said she only earns around HK$50 per day. She says she is often accused by the FEHD of obstructing bicycle paths for pushing her cart on the paths.

She was recently hospitalised for illness. “The FEHD took all my belongings from me when I was in the hospital, including the down jacket some people gave me,” she said.

Him Tang of the group School of Poverty Caring said the recyclers are very old and should enjoy better lives.

“But in Hong Kong where there is not enough social welfare, even if they earn a living collecting cardboard, they don’t have the respect they deserve,” he said.

cardboard recycler
A proposed recycling space in Kwai Chung. Photo: Handout.

Tang suggested that the government implement friendlier policies towards cardboard recyclers, such as setting up appropriate spaces near refuse collection points or under bridges for them to handle their cardboard and reduce unnecessary confrontations.

He also said the government should implement a universal pension scheme as soon as possible so that elderly people will not have to collect and sell cardboard for a living.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.