An elderly cardboard scavenger who was fined HK$1,500 (US$191) for setting down a bag of rubbish on a Hong Kong street last month had the littering penalty waived after a concern group appealed to the authorities.
The Waste Picker Platform said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) on Monday told Chen Kung-lan, 63, that it would no longer prosecute her.
Almost 1,600 people and groups signed an online petition the group launched after Chen’s plight surfaced.
At a press briefing held by the group on Wednesday, Chen said: “I am very happy and thankful to the public for the support in helping me to achieve justice.”
Chen said she had been collecting cardboard on the streets in North Point on July 23. She said she temporarily unloaded a bag of rubbish from her trolley to the ground because the trolley was in danger of tipping over. Two officers from the department turned up and told her she had violated the law by littering.
“I told the officer I did not dump the rubbish on the street, I am going to take it away,” she said when the incident came to light. “But he said, ‘No, if your bag of rubbish touches the ground, you have already violated the law.’”
Chen claimed the officers did not listen to her explanation and kept saying she had committed an offence.
Authorities can charge and prosecute street scavengers for offences such as blocking public streets or hawking without a licence.
An estimated 2,900 street scavengers operate in Hong Kong, almost all of them women. Known locally as “cardboard grannies”, they scrape together a living by picking up waste material on the streets to sell to recyclers.
Peter Chiu Yat-fai, a member of Waste Picker Platform, said the group started the online petition on July 26 to rouse public support for Chen’s case and pressure the authorities to waive the fine.
He said the group accompanied Chen to the Eastern District Environmental Hygiene Office on July 30 and submitted an appeal letter as well as the petition to the authority. Chiu and Chen met two health inspectors to record new testimony that health inspectors told them would be used as legal consultation for the case.
The group earlier this year conducted a survey of 505 street scavengers in 11 districts across the city. It found up to 86 per cent of those surveyed were aged 60 or above, the oldest being 96. On average, they earned HK$716 (US$91) per month from selling waste for recycling.
They took everything away from me ... how am I to live with nothing left?
Wong Yuet-han, street scavenger
Chiu said the group wanted to invite public officers to experience the life of a street scavenger and for them to realise that temporarily placing items on the ground was unavoidable in their line of work.
Kwai Chung-based street scavenger Au Fung-lan, 67, noted department officials had taken away her trolley on multiple occasions, and told her to pay HK$1,500 to get it back.
“[FEHD officers] will wait till you’re away,” she said. “They will immediately take everything away, including the trolley and the cardboard on it.”
Wong Yuet-han, 66, a street scavenger in Sheung Shui, echoed Au’s remarks.
“They took everything away from me,” she recalled. “I went to the hospital for 10 to 20 days and spent all my remaining money. How am I to live with nothing left?”
Concern group member Tang Wing-him said the officers normally dumped the trolleys at refuse collection points after confiscating them.
An FEHD spokesman said it had withdrawn the penalty notice after thoroughly reviewing the collected data – including hearing the woman’s version of events – and seeking legal advice.