A peek into the work of Singapore’s elderly cardboard box collectors by Joy Liu
Even before the heat settles in, the corner stalls of Toa Payoh Industrial Park — tucked between the highway overhead and residential apartments across the street — are filled with the whirling and beeping of vehicles and forklifts moving back and forth. The lined rows of long buildings are sectioned into storefronts, denoted by open garages spilling metal rods or parked trucks onto the narrow streets.
One of these is a collection point. There is no storefront label, just a sweat-soaked man behind a large scale balanced by a dangling metal disk. It is his job to weigh everything.
Photo credit: The Kapturist
Most of what he weighs are cardboard boxes — brown, of various sizes, some collapsed, most still labeled with names of the products they once carried. The man buys them for 10 to 12 cents per kg. He scribbles a few numbers on a notepad as a receipt, digs out a few bills (or more often, a few coins) from two tin containers, and hands them to his seller.
Mr. Ong* has forgotten to collect his money. His bow-legged gait limits his effort to unload the boxes and few metal rods that he is selling in halting, jolted movements. He has already turned away before he is followed and given the $4.10 that he is owed. He looks at the money and points to his chest questioningly. Then, a toothless smile spreads across his face as he takes it in comprehension.
He is in his eighties. He wears a cap, shorts, and printed button-down shirt. As he returns up the road pushing his now empty cart except for cloth bags dangling from the handle, he talks about chiding his unmarried daughter with a smile.
ONE (SINGAPORE), in collaboration with J’s Restaurant and Happy People Helping People Foundation is organising a Feast of Giving, an end-year celebration for some 200 low-income elderly and cardboard collectors on Sunday 28 December.
There are no statistics for the number of cardboard collectors in Singapore, however one merchant who buys their stock says he sees 20 different elderly vendors every day. “They come here multiple times a day,” the man at the collection point says, nodding after Mr. Ong. He says most of the sellers are men and women in their sixties to eighties, who spend a majority of their day collecting, transporting and selling boxes.
Ms. Jaen* estimates that she is one of “sometimes twenty, no more than thirty,” in Toa Payoh. At sixty-five, she has a diminutive but stocky stature enlarged by an oversized faded T-shirt and maroon sweat pants. She has been collecting boxes in Singapore for over a decade, not being able to find any other work. While she has no family, she answers a ringing phone in a bulky fanny pack tied around her waist with exclamations that carry halfway across the street. “My friend,” she explains in a softer voice, after pulling out her upper dentures, picking off a speck, and replacing them in her mouth with attentive precision.
Unlike Mr. Ong, Ms. Jaen’s cart does not have metal scraps, which fetch over a dollar per kg. She has only boxes collected from stores in the area. While the stores give her their unneeded boxes, it is not always generosity that she faces. Ms. Jaen says people have also stolen boxes from her cart when she wasn’t looking.
Photo credit: Daniel Seidel
Her visit to the collection point around noon with a mostly full cart of some collapsed and stacked boxes earns her $2.30. This is a morning’s work.
She stops to chat with another woman coming to sell boxes. When she isn’t in conversation, she stands silently. Her brown eyes, ringed with grey around the pupils, trains onto a fixed spot. She waits. Behind her, the boxes she just sold are tossed into a rusting cage. When the cage is full, a forklift hoists and empties it into two large freight crates jutting onto the road. They are going to be shipped off, re-purposed, made useful again.
On her third sell of the day, Ms. Jaen earns four coins for a stack of boxes that reaches her shoulder. They total to a dollar. She shakes her head as she jangles the coins in her hands. A moment later, she lets out a questioning gasp when she discovers she’s only holding three coins. The next second, she stoops in front of the scale, face centimeters from the ground, retrieving the lost coin and tucking it into her fanny pack.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.