A cardboard collector in her sixties was fined HK$1,500 on Monday for littering, despite stating that she only temporarily left a bag of garbage on the ground to sort its contents. The incident has drawn renewed attention to the plight of street scavengers who – according to a study in May – earn less than HK$800 a month while working in difficult conditions.
The woman, nicknamed Lan, contacted the Waste Picker Platform concern group saying that had been fined by officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. She was collecting cardboard on North Point Road, and temporarily unloaded items from her cart to a spot about 15 metres away. She said two FEHD officers appeared “two seconds later” and fined her for littering.
“All these years I would process and sort the trash every night, why would they say I’m the one littering?” Lan told the concern group.
“I wasn’t littering, so I’m not afraid [of the law.] But I feel wronged. There’s a heap of garbage besides the bin but they ignored it. Mine was tidy,” she added, saying that the attitude of FEHD officers was “worse than thugs.”
The FEHD said in a statement that cardboard collector had refused to provide identification documents when stopped, which was why the officers called the police.
“Everyone is equal before the law. Current laws do not exempt individuals such as scavengers or the elderly, and officers will enforce the law based on evidence and the actual circumstances,” the statement read.
Lan told Apple Daily that she came to Hong Kong from China in 2008 to be with her husband and family. She said she received no financial support from her grown children, which was why she had to support herself.
She said she would normally collect cardboard from 3pm to around midnight, and earn around HK$100 per day from recycling centres. She said her rent was around HK$3,000 and she had no savings.
A study released in May showed that the average income of more than 500 cardboard collectors was HK$716. Most were women and above the age of 60.
The FEHD caused a public outcry last July when it tried to fine a 75-year-old scavenger for selling cardboard for HK$1. The department later relented.
A spokesperson for Waste Picker Platform said that collecting recycling should be recognised as a legitimate job, and officers should use discretion when dealing with them.
“FEHD officers never acknowledge that street scavengers are also workers,” the spokesperson said. “The plainclothes officers were trying to catch litterbugs, but the trash bags are part of the work process of scavengers, and not the result of intentional littering.”