Thai grandmother Nom Prom-on rummages through trash bins looking for bottles, cans and paper to trade for food and other goods at a recycling cooperative providing a lifeline for Bangkok’s poor.
Riding an old motorcycle with a garbage cart attached, the 61-year-old and her husband Rai rise early to beat rival scavengers to claim the best of the city’s recyclable trash, which they take to a cash-free “zero baht shop.”
The couple have combed trash cans for decades, but their earnings of less than US$10 per day are not always enough to live on, so they turned to the cooperative.
“When we’re starving, we can find rubbish to exchange for rice to eat, detergent, soap and everything,” said Nom, who also has grandchildren to raise and feed.
By selling to the recycling plants in bulk, the cooperative gets a better rate than individual scavengers would manage on their own.
Profits are then paid back to its members in dividends and other benefits, such as life insurance, interest rates from its “trash bank” and help paying medical fees. It is the brainchild of former scavenger Peerathorn Seniwong and his wife, Buarin.
“We thought of how we could help the poor, then we thought of rubbish — at least every house must have rubbish,” Peerathorn, 45, told foreign media.
The scheme’s 800 members include 35 households of scavengers along with other local people from eastern Bangkok who heard about the shop and now bring their recyclables to trade.
A former security guard and motorcycle taxi driver, Peerathorn came up with the idea after six years of living homeless under an elevated road in Bangkok.
“Sometimes we would have to buy things like fish sauce or rice on credit at shops,” Buarin said. “But people looked down on us as we’re poor and they’d wonder whether they would get their money back — that’s why we started our own shop.”
Fish sauce, rice, eggs, instant noodles, toothpaste and detergent are among the most sought after goods by members, about 20 to 30 of whom visit the shop each day, Buarin added.
There are several hundred thousand scavengers in Thailand earning between 200 baht and 300 baht (between US$6.50 and US$10) a day, according to the Thai Institute of Packaging and Recycling Management for Sustainable Environment, which has provided education schemes for members on issues such as hygiene and sorting trash.
An estimated one-quarter of the 15 million tonnes of garbage Thailand produces each year is recycled — largely thanks to scavengers rather than efforts by consumers to separate their waste.
The cooperative’s success is inspiring others too, with several similar cash-free shops opening up in the capital and elsewhere in the country. The institute hopes that 80 cash-free recycling shops will be set up across Thailand by the end of the year.
The project is also generating interest overseas, with visitors from as far afield as Japan and Mexico coming to see how it works.
Its success reflects changing attitudes toward trash, said Gloyta Nathalang, communications and environment director at Tetra Pak (Thailand) Ltd, which runs the country’s only plant for recycling used beverage cartons.
“‘Recycling’ is not an alien word any more — people are aware and want to take more action, but I think what we are lacking now is the system in place,” she said.
Peerathorn is proud of what he has achieved in his years living under what people used to sarcastically call his 100 million baht roof.
Garbage collecting has provided a good way to supplement his income and allows him flexible working hours, he said.
“It’s better to work as a scavenger because I don’t have to be anyone’s employee. Nobody tells me what to do,” he said.