A journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single step.

My existence came about with that single step. A step by a couple of intrepid globetrotters who wanted to sell hats. They brought the hats back with them on their travels halfway round the globe. To sell them right, they realised that they needed boxes. So they put an order through to my fabricator, a company selling packaging material. After various processes involving splicing, slitting and scoring, I found myself flat-packed together with my bundle mates and ready to make the 11-day journey from China to Singapore by boat.

I arrived at my new home full of anticipation. We were to house hand-made Panama hats, who had made an even farther journey themselves — albeit shorter as they travelled by plane. They looked so worldly and elegant. I brimmed with pride at the thought of embracing one of them within my sturdy folds. I would provide the perfect housing to ensure the hat in my care reached his buyer in pristine condition.

But alas, that was not to be my fate. The boxes at the top of our pile were quickly released from the binds of their packing straps. One by one, they were folded into shapely cuboids and each paired off with a hat, to their respective buyers. The number of hats dwindled to a handful. But we boxes continued to loom in our corner, slightly abashed to be taking up so much space. The hats were ridiculously outnumbered by us. It became obvious to us that we were extras.

Our fabricator made money by producing many of us and selling us at a cheaper unit price. He had probably imposed a minimum order. Meanwhile, our owners appeared to have put a halt to their travelling and busied themselves with their full-time jobs. They didn’t seem interested in getting more hats.

The days plodded by, we gathered dust. And then from out of the blue we hear a dreadful virus by the name of Covid-19 had struck and turned the world topsy-turvy. Our owners looked at each other woefully and said, “Well, looks like we won’t be travelling at all in the near future. At least not this year and probably not next year either.”

Then they looked at us and said the dreaded words: “These boxes have got to go.”

Go? Go where? Are we going to be thrown on the streets? Dumped in the green bin, destined for the incinerator? They couldn’t do that to us! Our mission in life was yet to be fulfilled. Let it be the blue bin, I hoped fervently. That way, we’d have a shot at a second life as recycled board. Though goodness knows if someone as much as throws a half-empty drink can in with us and we’re done for. We’d be contaminated and worth zilch to any recycling company.

We waited in trepidation for the day of reckoning to arrive.

For days all was calm and we remained in our dusty corner. Our owners had snapped some photos of us and posted them online. That gave me a bit of hope. Perhaps they planned to sell us to another hat seller?

Then came the first knock on the door. A bespectacled lady beamed earnestly, grasping a blue carrier bag in her hand. As it turned out, our owners had put up a post on a Facebook group called Art Don’t Throw to bless us to people who could put us to good use. This lady – we’ll call her Z – was the first responder and she was looking for boxes to contain gifts for underprivileged children, as part of a social cause called A Gift from the Heart – A Shoebox Gift Initiative.

A Shoebox Gift Initiative Singapore
Image source: Facebook / A Gift from the Heart – A Shoebox Gift Initiative

Several times a year, Z and her friends would pitch in to get presents for children who need that extra cheer — all they needed were boxes. Covid-19 had messed with her plans too and instead of giving them out during the mid-year school holidays (which were brought forward by a month), she’d had to switch gears and plan for the September holidays instead.

Our lady owner introduced us to Z. It was obvious we wouldn’t really fit in Z’s bag. At least not that many of us. We must have looked lighter and smaller than we are in the photos. Undaunted, Z grabbed the packing straps of an unopened bundle, and heaved it down the corridor, hobbling a bit under the weight. She will call for a ride, she reassured our lady owner.

Fifteen minutes later, Z came stumbling back. There were beads of sweat on her forehead. She hadn’t been able to get a ride. It was the evening peak hour. She asked if she could return the bundle and take just five pieces instead, which she could then fit in her bag, a request our lady owner acquiesced to.

“Oh, and what nice neighbours you have,” Z told our lady owner. On her way up the stairs to take the lift, and down to the ground floor from the lift landing, and up again to return the bundle, she’d met a kind gentleman who had lent her a hand with her hefty load. When needed, the kindness of strangers has a knack for materialising mysteriously to the rescue.

Things moved quickly the next couple of days. Twenty more of my box mates went to a teacher who wanted to create crafts with her students. Another bundle went to an online retailer who needed boxes for his business. Then the time finally came for me and my mates in the last bundle to leave for the next step of our journey. A young gentleman came to pick us up. We were to hold surprise Teacher’s Day gifts for preschool teachers.

The packing straps that had bound us together were snipped off. The sense of release was palpable among my compatriots as we listened to the sound of scissors cutting through the grey protective shroud we had been enveloped in all this while. Emancipation, at last!

One by one, we were folded into the shapely white cuboids we were always meant to be. There was plenty of room in each of us and our generous benefactors filled us to the brim with Belgian chocolates, bottles of chicken essence, jars of manuka honey, sheets of stickers and blocks of teacher stamps shouting “Awesome” and “Great Job”. And of course we can’t forget that coffee mug with a big smiley face that says “Best Teacher Ever” — for every teacher who has made all the difference to a student in his or her care.

Shoebox Gift Singapore
Image source: Facebook / A Gift from the Heart – A Shoebox Gift Initiative

Right now, as I pen this, I sit in the car trunk, en-route to my final destination. I feel happy, yet a bit apprehensive. After travelling 2,692 nautical miles across the ocean and uncounted kilometres zigzagging across the island of Singapore, it seems this would be the final leg.

What will become of me after my purpose has been served? Will the good teacher I bear gifts for reuse me to keep old notebooks or cards and notes from her students? Or will I be torn up and thrown down the ever-convenient refuse chute?

If it’s too much to hope for the former, I hope I may at least be sold to the rag-and-bone man for a shot at rebirth at the recycling mill. But I forget: door-to-door collections have been paused. I must start getting used to this new norm…Perhaps my photo will be reposted on the Art Don’t Throw group so I can again be picked up by kind-hearted people like Z to bring joy to others.

Who knows? Recycling only takes but one simple step.

Editor’s note:
We don’t often give thought to the packaging that our gifts come in. Whether it’s a box, a paper bag or fancy wrapping paper, there are many ways you can reuse, repurpose or recycle this material. Doing so is an act of kindness to the planet and may also end up brightening up someone else’s day!

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