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Karung guni trade on brink of extinction as scrap industry bears brunt of Covid-19

SINGAPORE — Homemaker Debbie Cheang wonders why she hardly sees any rag-and-bone man making his rounds in her Sengkang East estate.

A rag-and-bone man sorting out his cardboard at Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park 2 on July 30, 2020.

A rag-and-bone man sorting out his cardboard at Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park 2 on July 30, 2020.

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  • Scrap dealers unable to export due to lockdowns in importing countries, global travel restrictions
  • Demand for certain items such as clothes and electronics items has also fallen
  • This affected the livelihoods of the scrap dealers’ suppliers — the rag-and-bone men
  • One karung guni man said shops discarding fewer cardboard boxes
  • Prices of scrap materials have dropped as a result of Covid-19


SINGAPORE — Homemaker Debbie Cheang wonders why she hardly sees any rag-and-bone man making his rounds in her Sengkang East estate.

“I usually put waste paper, bottles and milk cartons in the recycling bin downstairs, which the karung guni usually doesn’t want,” the 46-year-old said.

For Dr Samuel Chng, online marketplaces like Carousell have made it easier for his family to get rid of unwanted clothes and electronics.

Said the 31-year old research fellow at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD): “I can often get a higher price and it’s more convenient than waiting for a karung guni to visit.”

That karung guni man might never come by again.

Mr Andy Lee, 49, the owner of MK Hardware, a scrap dealer located in Yishun Industrial Park, said many rag-and-bone men have given up their trade as Covid-19 impacted their earnings since early this year.

“At least 18 lorries used to come by daily and sell their scraps to me, now the number has fallen to four. Even then, they come once every two days,” Mr Lee said.

The scrap industry has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with dealers unable to export their goods due to lockdowns in importing countries and global travel restrictions. The demand for certain items such as clothes and electronics items has also fallen.

This, in turn, has affected the livelihoods of the scrap dealers’ suppliers — the rag-and-bone men and women who scour residential estates and shops for cardboards, aluminium cans, newspapers and old electronic appliances.


Eight karung guni men whom TODAY approached for this story said they are barely getting by these days — they take home between S$4 and S$30 a day, less than half of what they used to earn.

Mr Toh Kee Hock, 71, who has been picking up cardboard scraps in Ang Mo Kio’s Cheng San market for more than a decade, said that shops are now discarding fewer boxes.

“People have no business, they have no cardboard and boxes to discard. I usually pick up cardboard from the back of coffee shops or provision shops,” said Mr Toh.

He added that he has been earning around S$4 a day, down from the S$7 he used to receive for 30kg of cardboard scraps, which he takes a day and a half to collect.

A karung guni man gets his S$4.50 for 31kg of cardboard, which took him one-and-a-half days to collect from Cheng San market in Ang Mo Kio. Photo: Lena Loke/TODAY

Mr Goh Ngiang Suah, 58, who has been a rag-and-bone man for 30 years, said that electronics and clothes are no longer as valuable as before.

“Indonesia and Malaysia don’t want clothes anymore, there’s no demand. I might not necessarily earn from TVs, refrigerators and washing machines,” he said.

“In the past, I can still sell an appliance for S$20, but now it’s barely worth anything.”

He added that his earnings had fallen from slightly over S$1,000 before the circuit breaker to S$700 a month since June.

Mr Lee of MK Hardware knows of at least seven rag-and-bone men who have given up the trade as their earnings fell to S$30 a day, which is barely sufficient to cover their diesel costs. Most of them drive a lorry.

“They used to be able to earn over S$100 a day or S$70 at least,” he said.

“Many of them cannot survive because they can’t renew their COE and they simply have not made enough to sustain.”

Scrap dealers themselves are barely surviving. The six that TODAY spoke to said business has fallen by up to 80 per cent due to the lack of buyers for their materials.

They said the value of recyclables has been dwindling even before the pandemic.

Now, things are worse because there are fewer valuable scrap materials to be collected.


Before the pandemic, Mr Lee of MK Hardware said that foreign buyers would visit his warehouse in person to look at what he had.

They would buy large volumes of scrap materials such as spare parts from machines, old electrical appliances and copper before shipping them back in containers.

“Local exporters will still buy from scrap companies, but prices are low now so ultimately it’s the rag-and-bone men who suffer,” Mr Lee said.

Two scrap companies said that Covid-19 has impacted the prices of scrap materials.

In February, the prices were:

  • Newspaper: S$0.17 per kg

  • Cardboard: S$0.20 per kg

  • Aluminium cans: S$1.20 per kg

  • Iron scrap metal: S$0.25 per kg

After the circuit breaker ended on June 1, the prices of scrap materials have fallen to:

  • Newspaper: S$0.14 per kg

  • Cardboard: S$0.11 per kg

  • Aluminium cans: S$0.80 per kg

  • Iron scrap metal: S$0.22 per kg

“Some purchasers will still buy spare parts, but since they know there’s not much demand or competition during this time, they would bring down the price,” Mr Lee said.

Another owner of a scrap company located at Sungei Kadut Drive, who declined to be named, said that his business has fallen by 80 per cent after his business resumed in June.

Pointing to his rented warehouse, which was filled with scrap goods such as old hi-fi systems, box televisions and textile, the 55-year-old said that business still had to go on although he had been making little sales.

“Nobody is here to buy my goods but I still have to buy from these karung guni people who show up. If I don’t, they will go to other companies and stop selling to me in future.”

He added that his company, which has close to 10 full-time workers, is surviving on its reserves for day-to-day operations.

Mr Mohan Chandru, 34, a supervisor at a company which exports scrap metal, said that business has fallen by 40 per cent as international trade has been affected by lockdowns.

“Everything has slowed down. Although export has resumed for India, we are unable to supply the usual volume,” he said.

Scrap metal being processed for export at a warehouse in Sungei Kadut on July 31, 2020. Photo: Lena Loke/TODAY


Most scrap dealers also attributed the falling scrap supply to the country’s circuit breaker from April 7 to June 1, which forced the closure of shopping malls and non-essential businesses.

This resulted in fewer cardboard scraps and waste paper available for rag-and-bone men to collect.

“Since shopping malls are not open, there are fewer paper bags and carton boxes to collect. Pantries had less paper because few people were working during the period,” said Mr Toh, the owner of a waste paper company who declined to give his full name.

The impact of the dwindling supply of scrap paper products meant that local exporters are taking a longer time to meet their international clients’ demand.

“With Covid-19 and the circuit breaker, the karung gunis have not been picking up much waste paper. We now take longer to fulfil the volume needed for export,” said Mr Toh.

The scrap dealers said all scrap materials are exported and none are recycled here.

When the construction and renovation sector halted their operations, Mr Lee said that business was badly affected because companies like his had nothing to sell to the exporters.

The scrap metal taken from construction and renovation sites accounts for more than half of the revenue for scrap dealers.

Materials such as stainless steel, aluminium and copper can command a higher price than waste paper.

“The margin we make per kilogramme is actually very little, so for companies like mine, we stockpile scrap goods and sell them in bulk to earn more,” said Mr Lee.

“Exporters are unable to sell in this period and they now have a lot of goods. This means they will need to rent extra space to store the scraps.

“With excess supply, the prices offered to the karung gunis are lower.”

He added that with the market being very quiet, scrap dealers are barely making enough to cover for rental and workers.

His company lost money in April, but he was able to tide over with government subsidies which helped to mitigate his operational costs.


While he no longer waits for karung guni men to come by to pick up his unwanted things, Dr Chng, the research fellow from SUTD, believes they can still be relevant — if they can be integrated into the recycling ecosystem.

The scrap industry is endangered, he said, but given that the household recycling rates fell from 22 per cent in 2018 to 19 per cent in 2019, Dr Chng said that there is enormous potential for encouraging recycling behaviour, with rag-and-bone men playing a role.

However, this will require a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond ensuring that there are recycling bins, availability of rag-and-bone men and monetary incentive, he said.

“We need residents to develop a new norm and culture of recycling, embedding environmental values into our identity,” said Dr Chng, an applied social and environmental psychologist specialising in decision-making and behaviour change research.

“With an increasing awareness and desire to reduce waste and live more sustainably, karung gunis might have a second breath of life.”

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