Sooner or later, wherever you are in Asia, you will encounter the Karung Guni man. Usually a man, sometimes women or children, they are the recyclers. They get their name from the Malay words for ‘gunny sack’, which is a coarse woven sack made from jute into which the junk is placed.
Recently, I was getting ready to move home after several years in Malaysia and called in a firm of relocators. They were very professional, offering an excellent door-to-door handling service, but as I looked at the impedimenta of our family (junk in less polite speech), the realisation struck that we should de-clutter first.
It took months to face the truth and get a consensus which often crumbled as soon as some cherished item which once belonged to grandma was slated for disposal by someone else.
Letting go was hard and the urge to re-read books and circulate them to friends or NGOs like Parents Without Partners was strong. I set up a table outside the house and invited neighbours, friends and passers-by to browse. While it was encouraging to see interest, there wasn’t enough to give every book or appliance a new home or place on a shelf.
Then one day the Karung Guni man passed and asked about paper, cardboard packaging and metal. We got to talking and I offered it to him and our other junk and non-biodegradable waste like old phones and stereo speakers.
Watching him break down and quickly reduce the items was a lesson in effective movement as metal, plastic and cardboard items of widely different shapes sizes and weight were attached to his aptly named Hercules bicycle (Made in India). What could not be tied down on the frame went into sack panniers tied to the bike. I expected him to wobble off but the bike was quite stable.
Watching him made me realise that much of our ‘recycling’ to op shops is middle class guilt for our overconsumption and by giving a book or selling unwanted furniture or white goods to someone else, we were depriving people like Maniam of income.
Scavenging not only provides income to the poor but also reduces the need for highly sophisticated and costly recovery systems. Apparently, scavengers in the Third World prevent 10-20 per cent of waste from going into landfills. Moreover, the World Bank estimates that about 2 per cent of the poorest people are supported by the waste channelled by recyclers from the top 20 per cent of the population.
By passing it to the Karung Guni men instead of a recycling contractor or just throwing it into the garbage, you are helping the poorest families. Maniam took, I estimate, about 15 per cent of our junk and saved us money!