One Man’s Trash is Another’s Treasure

23 October 2017

Up and down the country, senior citizens have become a part of Malaysia’s recycling ecosystem by collecting recyclables to be resold and turned into income.

The term “recycling uncle” might not be immediately familiar to some of us. You might have seen one in your neighbourhood, poking around trashcans and plastic bags left out for collection by residents. But what you probably don’t know is that these enterprising uncles are eking out a living and existence from the debris of our lives.

One such uncle is Tan Kah Tan, who has spent the last 40 years as one of these recycling uncles. He’s a skinny 78-year-old man, browned from the hours he spends under the sun, and despite the exhausting work he does, manages an easy smile and talks openly about his work.

His day is a never-ending cycle of work: starting at 4am, Tan has a simple breakfast before heading out for the day. He travels all over the Klang Valley, collecting recyclables wherever he can, and then personally delivers his goods to various recycling centres or buyers who will pay him for his load. “What I earn every day depends on what I can collect,” he says in Hokkien.

“It’s not only me that’s collecting, many others are also doing similar collections.”

After he’s finished collecting for the day, Tan begins the laborious work of sorting the recyclables into separate bags. When we visit him at his modest Petaling Jaya home, he’s sorting piles of paper into large gunny sacks – shredded paper goes into one, newspaper goes into another. If Tan finds discarded electronics, he’ll have to dismantle them into parts, sorting the metals into different groups. Copper can earn him RM5 per kilo, while the cost of aluminium fluctuates greatly.

Tan began collecting recyclables when he was about 38 years old, upon realising that he couldn’t make enough money as a rubber tapper. He had never gone to school so he’s largely uneducated, but he found that he could earn some income by collecting recyclables to be sold. “I was very poor back then, life was very difficult,” he says.

His job has never been glamorous; it’s backbreaking, and the market continues to change. He struggled for many years, he says, and continues to struggle today, despite the fact that his only son, who is in his late forties, helps out.

Recycling is a project full of variables, and it’s a game of luck. Tan may work from day to night and collect myriad materials – from plastics to heavy bags full of paper, and whatever scrap metal he can find – but no matter how early he wakes up, or how far he travels, his livelihood depends largely on whatever people throw out.

The market is equally fickle: paper might be priced differently depending on whether or not it’s coloured, while plastics will only earn him 70 sen per kg. If you think about how many plastic bottles Tan would need to collect to make up a single kilogram, you can understand how difficult the work is for a single man on an old motorcycle.

What’s more, with programmes that encourage household recycling, the work Tan relies on could become increasingly difficult. In 2015, the government made it mandatory for households in several states to separate their rubbish in an effort to reduce the amount of recyclable waste that end up in landfills.

Despite the inevitable impact this will have on Tan and his like, it’s difficult not to think of the positive gains to be had with such policies.

As it is, Malaysia still has a relatively low recycling rate, according to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia), and the increased awareness of environmental impact can only help us do better by our planet.

Though it’s a shame, it’s likely that the “recycling uncle” will soon be a product of a specific time and place.

 But for the moment, Tan continues to work to earn some personal income. From the recyclables, he earns roughly RM1,000 a month, which he says is not enough even if he is prudent with his money.

He’s lucky enough that there are neighbours nearby who know of his work and set aside their recyclables for him to collect. He also sells newspapers to help pay for his daily groceries.

“If I could go out to enjoy myself, then I don’t have to do this,” he says with a little scornful smile. He doesn’t respond when asked if he’ll ever stop working laborious jobs, but one gets the sense that Tan carries on because he doesn’t know any other way of being.

Maybe it’s pride or maybe it’s out of necessity; whatever it is, Tan continues to pick up what others discard.

By Samantha Cheh
Photos by Wong Yok Teng
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi


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