Most days, they toil under the hot sun, pushing a rickety trolley around Singapore, scavenging for cardboard boxes from dustbins and hawker centres.
They are Singapore’s elderly cardboard collectors.
Their reward for hours of back-breaking work?
Four dollars for 100kg of cardboard collected.
But on Jan 5, instead of making their usual rounds, a group of Singapore’s elderly cardboard collectors sat comfortably around tables at Toa Payoh Industrial Park, armed with plastic boxes instead of rickety trolleys.
They were taking part in a herb-growing project by community group Happy People Helping People (HPHP) to help these elderly people make a better living.
Since 2013, local ground-up movement helps care for cardboard collectors
Speaking to The Pride, Nafiz Kamarudin from HPHP explains why Singapore’s elderly cardboard collectors tug at his heartstrings: “They are old, alone and yet they still have to struggle to make ends meet without a job,” he said.
Started in 2013, HPHP provides monthly meal vouchers and provisions for elderly box collectors who are struggling to get by. They also organise monthly get-togethers called Happy Sundays. During these sessions, HPHP volunteers meet the cardboard collectors to find out more about their lives. Some volunteers also sponsor meals at $93 a month.
“Options are limited when you are old. Very often, these seniors in need are cast aside, ignored and forgotten,” Nafiz said.
“We have an aging population,” he added. “We need to find new ways to care for them.”
HPHP’s latest solution? Teaching the elderly to grow and sell their own crops.
Monthly meet-ups to grow and cultivate herbs
In a Facebook post on Jan 6 about the project, HPHP volunteer Calvin Soh wrote: “Six weeks ago we gave them Italian basil seeds and pods, and taught them how to germinate [them].”
Soh buys each batch of germinated pods from the elderly participants for $2.00. That’s the equivalent of collecting 50kg of cardboard. .
In his post, Soh described how several elderly cardboard collectors sold eight pods to him for $16 – the equivalent of 400kg of cardboard.
Soh hopes to help the elderly sell each batch of pods for more. “If we can sell these pods for $3, then the ecosystem supports itself,” he wrote. “Regular Singaporeans [can] get access to good quality seedlings [and] the seniors have a new business that is good for their mind and body.”
“Now they see a potentially easier way of making money, [that requires] less effort and is therapeutic,” Soh wrote.
He added that although more volunteers have come to join the project, it takes time to change mindsets. “Let’s see what happens in the next six weeks,” he concluded.
Speaking to The Pride, Soh explained why he strongly supports equipping the elderly with these skills, and why it was important this project is sustainable.
“In the past, there have been efforts to help the elderly cardboard collectors,” he said, citing examples such as providing them with better, lighter carts. “But that won’t help. It’s just putting a band-aid on a large wound. Instead, we needed to redesign the entire system.
“Instead of collecting cardboard, what other activities can they do that are healthier and better for them, that give them a sense of dignity, and get them enough money?” Soh asked.
The former vice chairman and chief creative officer of Publicis Asia Pacific added: “If there’s a social issue, just think creatively. You might find a simple and creative solution to solve it.”
Had a shaky start
Soh admitted that there were a few blips when the project started late last year.
“The elderly were reticent at first and needed to be coaxed to leave their cardboard collecting for this,” he said. During the first meet, only eight elderly cardboard collectors turned up.
But when word spread about how easy it was, more elderly cardboard collectors began showing up at HPHP’s meets.
“For the first six weeks, the seeds are planted in wool pods, kept in a plastic container and given only water – no additional nutrients,” he explained. “It’s very simple. And for many of the elderly, gardening is not a new or unfamiliar skill. So there’s a high adoption rate.”
Apart from that, horticulture presents many benefits to the elderly farmers, too.
“Farming herbs is extremely beneficial for the elderly,” Soh explained. “There are benefits to horticultural therapy, from lowering depression to slowing down dementia. They get to grow and eat their own vegetables, which is healthier and helps reduce cost.”
Eventually, HPHP hopes to create a demand for locally grown, organic herbs and vegetables. “It will encourage Singaporeans to eat healthier too, which benefits everyone,” Soh said.
Teach a man to garden, and you feed him for life
Soh and Nafiz hope more elderly cardboard collectors will benefit from this project.
“Having them grow crops instead of picking cardboard also gives them dignity and purpose. It keeps their morale high,” Soh said. “I see this as a way to thank the previous generation, who helped build our country.
“We suggest to them: put the pods on your cardboard carts, bring the cart downstairs, and sun the plants while having a chat with friends at the coffee shop,” Soh said. “They can exchange tips while catching up.”
“Unlike donations, which is often ad hoc, teaching them to garden equips them with a skill and helps them make a living,” he explained.
“It’s the old adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime!” Soh said.