At the crack of dawn, 67-year-old Au Fung-lan and her husband, 77, start their back-breaking daily routine. The couple, though well past retirement age, insist on collecting cardboard and polystyrene boxes from the streets around their neighbourhood.
The elderly woman has been doing so for more than two decades since losing her job at a local factory. She has raised three children through her hard work, and has no intention of stopping now.
Her daily toil shows in the dirt on her fingernails and in the withered, curved shape of her hands.
Deviating from the stereotype of a poor scavenger, the pair are luckier than many other waste collectors because they own the flat they live in, having bought it decades ago – quite a feat in Hong Kong, a city consistently rated the world’s most unaffordable housing market. However, despite this financial cushion, they have no plans to slow down.
“I don’t feel good just sitting at home. If I don’t work, I will have pain everywhere in my body,” Au, who refers to herself as “Sister Lan”, said.
“I will retire when I have no energy to push my cardboard cart ... then I want to hire a domestic helper.”
Au is among an estimated 2,900 “cardboard grannies” – most are elderly women – who toil in the shadows gathering and selling cardboard and other waste, some just to make ends meet. Many are happy to continue working well into their twilight years, but have difficulty finding legitimate work.
Earlier this week, Au was joined on her rounds by a special one-off helper – Hong Kong lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick. Chu was invited by a local concern group, Waste Picker Platform, to shadow the couple for a day.
The trio hit the streets together at 6am, and within 3½ hours had filled the cart with 70kg of cardboard, guided it down a six-lane highway, and transferred 132 foam boxes down pavements clogged with commuters.
“You have to shout or they won’t make way for you,” Au told Chu as she guided him through the crowds.
Hong Kong government officers constantly target cardboard collectors, making their lives even harder, concern group says
They were able to make HK$280 from their efforts in the morning. At midday they took a break for lunch, before getting back on the job again from 3pm. On most nights the couple don’t finish scavenging until 10pm or 11pm. They do it seven days a week.
An estimated 193 tonnes of cardboard and waste paper are collected each day by Hongkongers like Au and her husband.
“They are essential to the city’s waste collection efforts. But it seems they are often not welcome,” Chu said. “It’s like they are living in the cracks of society.”
Au is regularly the subject of scorn from residents in her neighbourhood, Kwai Fong, a working class district in Kowloon.
“Don’t pity her. This granny is rich!” two women told Chu in a raised voice as they passed by.
Another pair of pedestrians grumbled to Chu about hygiene concerns. However, a security guard from a nearby building praised Au’s hard work keeping the streets clean.
Shopkeepers selling vegetables and meat in Che Fong Street routinely throw their used cardboard boxes, foam waste and an assortment of other trash onto the pavement, relying on Au to pick it up and carry it to a nearby recycling plant.
But the rate at which the rubbish comes is too much for the couple’s ailing physical abilities, so the mess often piles up on the street. The government’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) had received numerous complaints about trash on this street, Chu said.
In July, an elderly woman just like Au was fined HK$1,500 (US$191) for littering after leaving out a bag of rubbish. Last year another collector was apprehended for selling cardboard without a licence, at HK$1 a piece. Both cases sparked an outpouring of outrage and sympathy, and the government eventually dropped the charges.
HK$1,500 government fine on Hong Kong ‘cardboard granny’ waived after appeal and petition from scavengers concern group
Chu, an environmentalist turned lawmaker, wants the government to allocate public space for these collectors to store and organise their material. In Au’s neighbourhood, he suggested a park off Che Fong Street as a starting point.
The legislator believes Hong Kong’s “cardboard grannies” should be integrated with official street cleaning and recycling efforts carried out by the FEHD and Environmental Protection Department.
He also called for a merger of the two departments, which he said could boost the city’s recycling rate.
The elderly collectors were a valuable resource, he added, and their work should be integrated with government waste collection, and their opinions sought on policy.
“We can think about how to make better use of the existing 170 FEHD public waste collection points, to provide working spaces for these ‘recycling ambassadors’,” Chu said.
This article ‘Living in the cracks of society’: a day on the road with Hong Kong’s scavenging ‘cardboard grannies’ first appeared on South China Morning Post