What if waste could be given a second life?

By convention, waste is something that is no longer useful and hence unwanted. However, when does something become useless? How do we define usefulness?

“Waste is largely a social construct, with varying meanings and practices attached to it across history and society”

(Chandran et al., 2002:21)

Adding on the previous post on Singapore’s unending plastic waste stream, this post traces Singapore’s informal waste recovery efforts, revealing how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, literally.

The karang guni

For the average Singaporean who grew up in the nation’s public housing, known colloquially as HDBs (>80% of Singaporeans live in HDBs), the “honks” of the karang gunis’ horns are a familiar sound.

A karang guni man sounding his horn as he walks through the HDB flats, searching for residents with unwanted household items (Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Y3hnOw3Ys)

Emerged in the 1970s, karang gunis (rag-and-bone collectors) are the pioneers of Singapore’s recycling efforts. With their trolleys in hand, karang gunis combed through HDBs, going door-to-door to buy unwanted household items from residents. This includes anything from newspapers, plastic soap bottles and even bulky electronics like DVD-players and refrigerators. These items are then sold to recycling companies or in the case of electronics, repaired and sold to neighbouring South-east Asian customers, where older electronics are still in demand.

A prejudiced trade in decline

Although karang gunis were the backbone of Singapore’s recycling efforts, they faced much prejudice from the wider public. The trade was not formally recognised, and often seen as an undesirable job for the unskilled and uneducated. This disdain is encapsulated in the common expression that “one would end up a karang guni if one didn’t study hard”.

Thoughts of a son of a karang guni man, see full video by Ho et al. (2019)

The image of the karang gunis was further tarnished with the implementation of the National Recycling Program in 2001 (mentioned in my previous post). While a laudable attempt at enabling nation-wide domestic recycling, the NRP threatened the livelihood of karang gunis as recyclables previously sold to them were now collected under the NRP. Hostile exchanges on the news media intensified following some cases of karang gunis stealing recyclables from NRP’s collections (Neo, 2010). Coupled with growing transport costs and reduced demand (e.g. falling value of used electronics), the trade has been in decline since the turn of the century, and is now regarded as a ‘sunset sector’ (CNA Insider, 2018).

Karang gunis interviewed by CNA lamented their drop in earnings, see full video by CNA Insider (2018)

Nevertheless, the few remaining karang gunis are still a key pillar of Singapore’s domestic recycling. Ironically, nearly 90% of domestic recyclables today are collected by karang gunis, far exceeding that of the NRP. It is clear that the technocratic approach of the NRP overlooked the potential of public participation, missing the key opportunity for leveraging on karang gunis’ expertise and their familiarity among residents (Neo, 2010).

The modern karang guni – dumpster divers

On the other hand, there has been a new twist to the idea of waste scavenging in recent years, with the emergence of dumpster diving in Singapore. A small but growing community, dumpster divers salvage useful items from “trash”. Typically identifying themselves as freegans, Singapore’s dumpster divers reuse or give away scavenged items, seeking to reduce waste and reject consumerism. With another stroke of irony, one of the dumpster diving “hot spots” are the NRP’s blue recycling bins, as an array of non-recyclable but still-usable items are discarded there:

Bianca Tham, an avid dumpster diver, revealed that the blue recycling bins are a hot spot for dumpster diving, see full video by MOSG (2019)
Bianca Tham on one of her dumpster diving trips at the blue recycling bins, see full video by MOSG (2019)

Apart from the environmental aim, dumpster diving has also grown to encompass wider social agendas. For instance, Colin Lau initiated the Filiporean Project where he distributes scavenged items to Filipina domestic workers and their families back home (Lim, 2019).

Photos from the Filiporean Project (Lim, 2019)

Some have also extended dumpster diving to foods, like Daniel Tay who established the SG Food Rescue, salvaging and donating foods discarded by supermarkets to charity.

Daniel Tay leading volunteers on a Food Rescue dumpster diving trip, see full video by CNA Insider (2017)

At a smaller scale, individuals like Bianca also utilises the Facebook Freegan page to give away dumpster dived items to the needy.

Bianca Tham sharing how she gives away dumpster dived items to the needy, see full video by ZULA (2020)

Rethinking waste and waste recovery

Arguably, Singapore’s informal waste recovery efforts represent a ground-up response to the systemic gaps that persists in Singapore’s waste recovery, embodying the notion of ‘people as infrastructure’ (Simone, 2004). Through the karang gunis and dumpster divers, it is evident that the very concept of “waste” is inherently subjective, and tied to both environmental and social implications.

Quote from Bianca Tham (ZULA, 2020)

The fact that someone’s “waste” can become precious possessions for others reveals not just the wasteful nature of consumerism, but also the stark socio-economic divides within and beyond Singapore. Furthermore, while dumpster diving is gaining traction, dumpster divers still face similar prejudices as that of karang gunis:

Quote from Bianca Tham (ZULA, 2020)

Given the immense potential of karang gunis and dumpster divers in reducing and recycling waste, there is pressing need for the state to legitimise their activities and collaborate to scale up their waste recovery efforts. Otherwise, it’d be throwing their efforts literally back into the bin.

[767 words]

References

Chandran, P., K. Arora, M. Abubaker and N. Shekar (2018) Valuing Urban Waste: The need for comprehensive material recovery and recycling policy, Bengaluru, India: Hasiru Dala.

CNA Insider (2017) ‘Your Trash, His Treasure: Dumpster Diving | CNA Insider’ (WWW) Singapore: CNA Insider (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBFQUDt66fg ; 11 December 2020).

CNA Insider (2018) ‘Everyday Singaporeans Karang Guni’ (WWW) Singapore: CNA Insider (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQTK_2ACy9U ; 11 December 2020).

Ho, J., C. Tan, K. Ooi, M. Farihin, S. Rathi, Z. Adila and S. Tan (2019) ‘My Father, the Karang Guni’ (WWW) Honour Singapore (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYPO6mlYztE ; 12 December 2020).

Lim, B.L. (2019) ‘What The Heck Do Dumpster Divers Do In Singapore?’ (WWW), Singapore: Millennials of SG (mosg) (https://mosg.tv/2019/01/27/what-dumpster-divers-do-singapore/ ; 12 December 2020)

MOSG (2019) ‘A Dumpster Diver’s Treasure’ (WWW) Singapore: Millennials of SG (MOSG) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzsFFJzHMaA ; 11 December 2020).

Neo, H. (2010) ‘The Potential of Large-Scale Urban Waste Recycling: A Case Study of the National Recycling Program in Singapore’, Society and Natural Resources, 23, 1-16.

Simone, A. (2004) ‘People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg’, Public Culture, 16, 3, 407-429.

ZULA (2020) ‘26-Year-Old Digs Through Trash To Help The Needy: Bianca Tham | ZULA Features | EP 29’ (WWW) Singapore: ZULA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21MCagkzzdg ; 11 December 2020).

2 thoughts on “What if waste could be given a second life?

  1. Hi there! This was a really fluently written piece that covers a good mix of data, anecdotes, and analysis. The visuals also made the story more compelling. Its really unexpected that karang gunis account for so much of the collection of domestic recyclables – could this be in part due to karang gunis going door-to-door to ask households if they have recyclables they can give away, which creates convenience for households? It was also interesting to learn about dumpster divers, because literature often describes many of us as being unwilling to associate with what is deemed as waste.

    Like

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