Bag by Bag, Janitors and Housekeepers Keep Bangkok’s Waste System Green

Bangkok | 06/19/2013 9:02am
Witchaya Pruecksamars | Informal City Dialogues

The smell of the cool night air lingers. At 6 a.m. darkness still blankets the sky and the sound of city traffic is low. A lone tube of fluorescent light illuminates a concrete car park behind the GMM Grammy Tower, a 43-story building owned by a media conglomerate in Bangkok. Next to a parked pick-up truck, several silhouettes are loitering.

“Some buildings don’t allow us to do this,” says Pim, an outsourced janitress I met several days ago on the fifteenth floor while visiting my friend’s office. She’s walking me closer to the truck to meet a certain man – a nomadic dealer who pays out small sums of money in exchange for the goods Pim collects from the offices inside. Plastic bottles and newspapers, that is.

Pim tries to introduce me to Kamon, a scrap dealer and junk-shop owner, but he’s a little tied up with his customers. I observe two apron-clad women chatting nonchalantly near him. They’re waiting for their goods to be weighed. Kamon’s younger assistant, Tao, grabs a large trash bag — empty plastic bottles rattle around inside — and tosses it onto a heavy-duty scale on the ground. Kamon leans over to peek at the dial and records the number in his pocketbook. “150 baht na krub,” he says. That’s about $5 USD for three to four kilos of PET plastic bottles, plus a week’s worth of newspapers from one floor of offices.

“That could be our pocket money for noodles and bus fares,” says Pim. It’s not a lot, but it’s something, and the cleaners who sort and store recyclable materials on every floor of the building won’t let the opportunity offered by Kamon pass by. Unlike the dangerous treasure-hunting that takes place at Nairobi’s dumpsites, or the mind-numbing labor performed by the marginalized, informal recycling is not usually a do-or-die proposition. More often than not, it is casual and complementary.

I can’t help but to notice Kamon’s attire. His shirt is well-ironed, but it hangs out of his black chinos and he’s wearing flip-flops with black socks. Unlike his assistant, who shows up in tight jeans, Kamon obviously cares more about comfort than style. But then, little by little, I discover that this is a man who’s more worldly and wise than his frumpy outfit suggests.

Now 38, Kamon held down a decade-long legal career before turning to scrap dealing. Though he now earns less than half of what he used to make as an attorney, he’s happier than ever. “It doesn’t conflict with the inner me,” he smiles. “Some people are dirtier on the inside than what I do now.”

It’s been six years since he turned his back on the courtroom. His first contact with scrap dealing involved a lawsuit. “Someone I know was sued for buying up stolen goods,” he says, referring to a friend of a friend who was a scrap dealer. Kamon rightly proved the guy’s innocence. However, like many laws in the kingdom, the key law concerning scrap dealing is insanely outdated—82 years old and counting. So the power lies with the police and those who know how to wield the legal text. Unfortunately, there are always stories of bad apples doing bad deeds. The defendant was sued for “a personal reason,” not because he did wrong, says Kamon.

As I get to know him more, I also become more accustomed to the polite, intellectual demeanor underneath the façade of Kamon’s unfashionable clothes and military-style haircut. He proudly renounces style, explaining that he finds it wasteful.

As a scrap trader, Kamon acts as a middle man between cleaners (as well as housekeepers, waste pickers, etc.) and bigger wholesalers and factories that do the processing and recycling. The trash he collects he sells in bulk to larger vendors — the bigger the bulk, the better his profit margin.

In Thailand almost all commercial and household recyclable waste is manually sorted and collected “on site” at downtown offices and affluent gated communities. Given that recycling bins here are treated no differently than normal bins (both by those who litter and those who empty the bins), arrangements like the one between the office cleaners and scrap traders like Kamon are what propel the country’s recycling scheme. Casual but efficient – the office cleaners can collect and separate recyclables while working, and Kamon spends only two mornings each week picking up the goods – the process is profitable even at a small scale.

The sector is an exemplary case of the informal realm supporting the formal. Capital-intensive recycling operations in Thailand simply cannot operate without the collecting and separating efforts of casual and informal workers. To picture the flow of recyclable materials, one can imagine a pyramidal structure. At the base of the pyramid are hundreds of thousands of housekeepers, live-in maids, office cleaners, “door-to-door” waste buyers and waste pickers; in the lower-middle section are thousands of small- to medium-sized scrap traders like Kamon; above that are hundreds of large wholesalers, companies like Wongpanit and at the zenith of the pyramid are giant industrial plants that process raw materials into end products — Tetra Pak, for instance, which runs the country’s only plant for recycling used beverage cartons.

While the bottom of the pyramid is more ad hoc and laborious, the top tends to be rigid and mechanized. And while it may be grimy in appearance, the bottom of the pyramid is much more “green” and efficient than its richer formal counterparts. For instance, a Finland-based company called ZenRobotics has been developing a robot waste-picker that can correctly identify 50 percent of recyclable material in a pile of trash, whereas Mumbai’s human waste-pickers make sure over 80 percent of that city’s plastic waste is recycled.

Although licensed, scrap traders like Kamon are typically considered “informal” by academics and formal institutions. Though when it comes to trash, perhaps like anything else, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s formal and informal. For instance, formal waste collectors (the ones employed by the municipality) also look for and pick out recyclable materials while they collect trash from the curbside. They, too, sell to vendors like Kamon. Separating garbage is not part of their formal work description, but everyone does it informally because it earns them extra money.

At around 7 a.m. Kamon’s girlfriend, Salee, arrives at the scene. She is formally employed; in fact, she works on the 34th floor of the Grammy building as a journalist specializing in entertainment news. She has no qualms about Kamon quitting his legal career, and now even supports her boyfriend’s informal business. As Kamon’s pick-up truck is crammed full, bag by bag, the cleaners continue to haul their merchandise down to the parking lot. They come one by one with big bags and boxes filled with cans and bottles and all kinds of paper. A small queue forms. Unused items such as CDs and an old kettle are added to the pile. It’s quite fun anticipating what the next person might bring over and guessing how much money they could get for it.

I ask Kamon if he has any competitors. He replies that he is not worried about competition in the slightest. “The supply of recyclable trash is limitless,” he says. “It would actually be better for the city if more people do what I do… Each of us produces around 500 kilos of trash each month.”

500 kilos? I wasn’t sure if I heard that right. It sounds like a lot. But Kamon says he read the statistic in an academic paper. And come to think of it, if we were to take into account all of the “hidden” waste that results from the production of fuel, food, furniture, etc., and not just the things we throw away through everyday consumption, the figure becomes plausible.

By eight o’clock, people and cars are arriving in throngs. Strangely, I’m seeing lots of doughnut boxes, as well as cans and bottles that once held sugary drinks, and less A4 paper than I’d expect. I mean, it’s an office building for god’s sake. But Salee enlightens me – though commercial districts were once heavy on paper and other high-value recyclables, she says, “We don’t use so much paper now, because nowadays we can just send emails.”

What’s happening here outside the Grammy is just the starting point in a much larger process. Today’s trash trade has a global scope and an internet presence. Prices fluctuate on a day-to-day basis.

“During the construction of the Olympic stadium, the prices were swinging wildly,” Kamon says, taking a break from welcoming his customers.

“You mean the one in Beijing?” I ask.

Kamon nods in response, his hands clasped behind his back. “Recyclable materials only got circulated in the domestic market in the past, but these days they get exported too,” he explains. “The price of some materials, such as paper and copper, is tied to the price set by the international market.” He says that in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, China was amassing raw materials in order to build its stadium, which caused a sudden spike in demand for metals, causing prices to rise.

“The price of iron scrap was going up, up, up,” Kamon says. It peaked at 22 baht per kilo (about 71 cents). Many scrap dealers stockpiled these metals, trying to maximize profits. Unfortunately, some underestimated the risks they were exposing themselves to – when China had procured enough materials, the demand for metals vanished.

“Many of them were on the verge of committing suicide,” Kamon recalls. Within a period of one month, the price of iron plummeted to less than one-fifth of its high, reaching a low point of four baht per kilo. Many dealers that bought iron during the price hikes incurred huge losses – few had expected the price swing to be so sudden. “What is worth 100 now could be 80 tomorrow,” says Kamon.

It’s nine o’clock and Kamon needs to leave the premises soon, by agreement with the management of the Grammy Tower – it will need the parking spaces as its workers begin to arrive. Tao is almost finished loading the goods, now properly packed in similarly sized black bags, onto the truck. I squint my eyes to look up a sharp cliff of sky-tinted mirror to see the top of the tower, a manifestation of modern capitalism. Underneath my feet, the concrete car park is gradually heating up. The usual pandemonium of traffic and stifling heat, a familiar scene in Bangkok, is back.