Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: The Wan Chai Paper Collector

Ho Tat-sing at work - Photograph by Nicolas PetitWaste paper with resale value - Photograph by Nicolas PetitHo Chung Kee Waste Paper and Metal Buyer - Photograph by Nicolas Petit

“Hong Kong now is like heaven fallen into hell!” shouts Ho Tat-sing over the loud hum of the paper baler. It is pouring with rain in a narrow alley behind the main streets of Wan Chai, the humidity hanging heavy in the 30-degree heat of the small building. On the wall is the obligatory small red ancestral shrine being fanned by four dusty industrial-sized ventilators. A stack of orange juice cartons and coke cans stand right below.

The dark room lit by several fluorescent light tubes is in constant action. A steady flow of elderly women roll up to the entrance, their trolleys loaded with cardboard boxes, newspapers and paper flyers. Some bring shredded paper chucked out by an office building, others have old restaurant menus or school notes. All of it to be collected and compressed by Mr. Ho. Every few minutes a trolley is slid onto the scale embedded into the floor, the large shaky metal sheet forms a platform, measuring the resale value of the waste paper. The rain does not stop the women, as they all leave with their empty trolleys and big smiles, fresh cash in their hands.

Ho stops to make a note in his little black accounting book before turning back to the paper baler, feeding its hungry jaws with new raw paper. The paper is compressed and churned out into huge rectangular cubes, like sausages from a sausage maker. “This is how recycling is really done in Hong Kong – it is a private affair, not a government programme,” explains Ho. “It all goes to China.”

recycling_man_2_Nicolas_PetitWhile Hong Kong seems relatively clean for its size, recycling is a significant problem. A culture of convenience has meant more packaging, more consumption and more waste. On average, each person in Hong Kong produces about 1.36 kilograms of municipal solid waste per day, considerably higher than in cities like London, Tokyo and Seoul. However, there is no serious programme in place to deal with this increase. Landfills are the principal method of disposal in the city. It is estimated that the three landfill sites currently in use will reach their full capacity by 2018. The lack of a local recycling industry means that the process in Hong Kong is limited to collecting, recovery, bale and export, which is exactly the service that Ho provides.

In early 2001, the government did try to help by building a so-called “Ecopark” in Tuen Mun. The aim was to help the local recycling industry develop by providing an area to process recyclables such as cooking oil, scrap metal, waste wood, food waste and more into high-value-added goods. Currently, the only ones that caught on are used cooking oil that is being turned into biodiesel and food waste that is converted into fish food. Since there is no mandatory recycling in the city, most recyclables are collected by cleaners or scavengers such as the elderly woman providing Ho with his paper. Unless there is a big bottom-up cultural change and top-down policy advances, it is difficult to see how the situation can dramatically improve.

recycling_man_3_Nicolas_PetitHo has been collecting paper for over forty years now. He started learning the trade from his father when he was “about 12 or 13” years old. Like most of the population, his father came to Hong Kong from southern China and while the 70s were a tough time in the city, his father set up the Ho Chung Kee Waste Paper and Metal Buyer (何松記廢紙五金收買) when there was no other job to do. The two-storey building in a side alley of Ship Street seems to be one of the last ones standing; as with many of Wan Chai’s corners, the old is quickly losing out to the new. Right behind this metal and paper inferno, a trendy new Belgian café called Le Pain Quotidien has just opened. Customers carefully hold their fancy pastries and sip creamy cappuccinos next to a tough industry that is fast disappearing.

It takes determination to stand your ground in Wan Chai. The land value of Ho’s little two-storey building is probably worth more than any amount of paper he can sell. Developers have passed by often to convince him to sell his precious parcel of land. He is now surrounded by tall skyscrapers, the shiny glass and marble floors reflecting the old rusty shutters at his door. It does not help that the price of waste paper rises up and collapses with the market. What used to go for HK$2,000 per tonne plummeted to just HK$700 during the financial crisis of 2008 and has since settled around HK$1,000. Factoring in the transportation costs as well means this is a challenging business indeed.

recycling_man_1_Nicolas_PetitHo proudly tells us that his three children will not follow in his footsteps: one is a nurse and one is studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “My children are educated, they don’t have to do this, they will have better jobs,” he says. “When I stop working, we will probably close. Nobody wants to do this anymore.”

If the Hong Kong government does not introduce a better recycling policy, it is not difficult to imagine how the disappearance of places like Ho’s will only further aggravate the serious overflow of waste. Green groups have been campaigning for better producer responsibility for years as well as green procurement policies that could help increase the attractiveness of recycling waste into higher-value goods.

As citizens we could start by teaching our children to separate waste into recyclable categories. The recycling bins we currently see around the city are managed by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, while those in estates or building are managed by private contractors. There isn’t much accountability, though, and green groups have argued that there is no way of knowing exactly how much of what we put into recycling bins actually recycled.

From Ho Chung Kee’s entrance, the huge paper bales are loaded onto another set of trolleys, headed for the lorry that will transport them to China. Ho’s naked torso is covered in sweat as he continuously lifts and sorts through the growing pile of paper as the stream of elderly women continue to approach. The machine needs feeding like a ravenous animal, posing a danger to any empty hands that go near.

Round-the-clock paper collection in the city that does not sleep is a job for the resilient. Ho does not look a day over forty, but tells us he is way past 50 years old. “It is the exercise and the humidity that keeps me young,” he laughs. “Plus the eating and drinking as well of course.”

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