Hong Kong’s Shameful Recycling Efforts: ‘Cardboard Grannies’

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  - English Proverb

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” - English Proverb

Like every other Hong Kong-er, the sight of hunch-backed old ladies pushing trolleys piled high with waste cardboard around the busy streets is such a common one that I often find myself ceasing to notice them. However, every once in a while, I come out of my daydream and am suddenly reminded of the city’s extreme rich-poor divide. In those moments, I am perplexed and angered by the fact that the government is unable to provide for its poorest elderly, even among one of the most affluent cities in the world.

Nicknamed ‘cardboard grannies,’ these senior citizens are forced to scavenge the streets in search of disused cardboard to sell to local recycling plants, often for less than 70 HK cents (0.089 USD) per kilo, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). However, despite meager average earnings of $130 USD per month, these collectors are Hong Kong’s unsung heroes, recovering about 948,000 tons of paper and contributing to our modest recycling rate of 35%. As the city faces a waste and pollution crisis, the elderly play a vital role in this informal economy by recycling and reusing scrap materials.

Yet these cardboard grannies are neither appreciated for their contribution nor recognized by society. In fact, government workers regularly confiscate their cardboard and scold them for obstructing public spaces. In June 2017, an elderly woman was prosecuted for selling 1 HKD (0.78 USD) worth of cardboard without a license. Though the charges were later dropped after a public outcry, it is shameful that despite a budget surplus, the cold-blooded government fails to provide adequate social security for the city’s most vulnerable.

But perhaps lack of welfare is not the main problem. Many cardboard grannies interviewed by SCMP reported that they refused to apply for social security and turned down donations and other assistance because they didn’t want to rely on others. I too, recall that out of the cardboard grannies I’d encountered, many demonstrated a sense of autonomy and pride as they unapologetically barreled through narrow sidewalks and main roads with their trolleys of recycled goods. What these elderly people want is not money, but rather, recognition—to feel useful and valued for their contributions toward society.

Thus, perhaps a better solution is to integrate them with the recycling industry so that not only can they have a formal job with safer working environments and better wages, they are able to recover their damaged dignities. As the Hong Kong population ages and average life expectancy increase (now higher than Japan), it is more necessary than ever for the government to actively promote employment for the elderly.