Enterprising collectors find trash means cash
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Enterprising collectors find trash means cash

From 'saleng' on the street to multimillion baht businesses, the rise of recycling has created a wealth of opportunities

'Junk is gold," Somthai Wongcharoen says.

"It's not that another man's rubbish is another man's treasure any more, it's gold for anyone with a sharp eye for an opportunity."

Mr Somthai's story shows there's truth to that sentiment. He started his business in 1974 in a northern district of Phitsanulok. Everyday he roamed around the province and ones adjacent in a small pickup truck to collect recyclable waste.

Now, Wongpanit, the waste management company Mr Somthai started, is estimated to be worth several hundred million baht.

Not only Wongpanit, but the whole industry has been growing as cities around the country, including Bangkok, struggle with increasing amounts of rubbish due to rapid urbanisation and industrialisation.

"We consume more, therefore the amount of waste produced by households and industry has increased immensely, and companies like mine can do well," Mr Somthai said.

MIDDLE MAN: Thawat Krairak, the owner of Thawat’s Recycle shop.

According to the Pollution Control Department, last year Thais generated more than 16 million tonnes of solid waste _ more than 43,800 tonnes daily. Around 8,500 tonnes are collected each day in Bangkok. In the past, Thailand had dealt with rubbish by burying it, however, in recent years, more and more is recycled. Along with this new approach, new opportunities have presented themselves.

Wongpanit is an example of just how valuable those opportunities can be. Currently, the firm has more than 900 locations all over the country that buy in waste, and hopes to have more than 1,000 by year's end. It also has its own waste processing plants, the largest of which is in Ayutthaya's Wang Noi district, which recycles 100 tonnes of waste a day.

But the business of collecting waste has been going on for decades. Many will be familiar with saleng, the men and women who roam the street on tricycles collecting used materials and waste. The job had been generally considered very dirty, low-status work, but this may change with growing global concerns over the environment.

"Waste recycling is one answer. I see a bright future ahead when countries start to implement regulations on the ratio of recycled material to be used in new products," said Mr Somthai.


Suay, a 35-year-old scavenger, rummaged through rubbish bins in front of a house in central Bangkok looking for anything _ cardboard, plastic bottles, tin cans _ that could be of value. Back at his home, what he finds is cleaned, bundled or put into bags before being sold to a scrap dealer in his neighbourhood.

"I make around 400-500 baht a day. If I'm lucky, I can make more," Suay said, adding that on a good day he may find something more valuable such as broken electric appliances thrown away by their owners.

The scrap dealer that Suay usually goes to is Thawat's Recycle shop, on Ratchadaphisek Soi 36 and owned by 43-year-old Thawat Krairak, who once peddled a saleng and collected waste before he set up his own scrap yard 13 years ago.

Piles of huge black bags containing different materials line every wall of Mr Thawat's warehouse.

Dozens of workers busy themselves loading bags onto pickups to be sent to bigger dealers or processing plants, while others greet customers anxious to sell what they have found. Their bags are put on scales to be weighed before they are paid.

"I'm proud of what I'm doing. I'm helping the world and getting rich at the same time _ I can make more than 100,000 baht a month," Mr Thawat said. He recently bought the warehouse, having rented it for years.

Workers remove copper wire from an air compressor; tins of used palm oil are loaded for delivery; a young worker washes used bottles.

"My father was the one to see the opportunity.

"I might not have been successful if my father had not forced me to quit my job as a salesman to become a scrap dealer."

Once the rubbish Mr Thawat buys is sorted, it is packed and sent to various processing plants, the next stage on its journey to be recycled.

At Wongpanit's Wang Noi plant, a hydraulic press crushes cardboard and paper into one tonne blocks, while white writing paper is sorted and bundled by hand. These are then transported to a Siam Cement Group paper recycling plant in Kanchanaburi.

Glass bottles are sent back to the source _ the companies that originally used them for soya sauce, fish sauce and even beer _ where they can be cleaned and reused.

Various types of plastic are crushed, washed, dried, packed and sent to a plastic recycling plant outside Bangkok, and metals are sorted and also sent to various recycling plants.

As well as serving domestic needs, processed and recycled materials are also sent abroad. Wongpanit, which has its own processing plants, exports 40% of what it processes to many countries, including Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and Australia, and most of what it exports is aluminium.


FINDERS KEEPERS: Weighing scrap brought to the shop, left. Below left and right: ‘Saleng’ plying their trade.

Surprisingly, local scrap businesses rely to an extent on international financial institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange.

Every night, Mr Thawat checks the movement of the NYSE to gauge the mood of overseas investors, which may have repercussions on the prices of his various items of scrap waiting to be sold to processing plants.

The processing plants that set the daily prices for each item do so by taking into account the needs of the domestic market and the global economic situation, which reflects the rise or fall of global consumption. This information is translated into the prices used in Thailand for each company buying each item.

Although Mr Thawat has less power to negotiate over prices with the big guys, trends on international financial markets help him decide what, and when he should sell.

''I will keep some things for one or two more days before selling if I see the upward trend in global prices,'' Mr Thawat said. Even for smaller dealers such as Mr Thawat, price lists are updated daily.


A recent report by Shabbir Gheewala of King Mongkut's University of Technology says that only 22% of all the waste generated in Thailand is being recycled.

Bangkok has the most efficient system of refuse collecting. According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's department of the environment, 99% of domestic solid waste is collected by the city's trucks. But almost 90% of this is tipped at landfill sites in the adjacent provinces of Nakhon Pathom and Prachin Buri.

However, in recent years, the BMA has shifted policy to focus on recycling, working with co-operatives and private companies. And many municipalities around the country have launched campaigns to increase public awareness of recycling.

Mr Somthai sees this as an opportunity and has opened a franchise unit as well as started holding classes for those who want to learn how to become scrap dealers.

''During the five days of training, you'll learn everything _ ranging from knowing which types of rubbish can be converted into cash to pricing systems, economics and financial statistics. Even the feng shui of your business location.

''Let me say again that junk is gold, and I want everyone to understand that,'' Mr Somthai said.

GENTLY DOES IT: Boxes of empty bottles prior to being returned to the factory for reuse.

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