10 Apr, 2014
“You wouldn’t believe the things people throw away,” says Loong Sompong, who makes his living as a scrap collector in central Bangkok. “I’m always telling them that they are throwing away money but they just won’t listen!”
At 79 years old, Loong Sompong is a well-known character in his neighbourhood. Each day, without fail, he takes his pushcart past small slums, private homes, towering office buildings, and pavements packed with street vendors – all of which generate a regular and plentiful supply of trash.
Loong Sompong is a passionate advocate of recycling. Much of the furniture in his modest home has been picked up off the streets. He has an electric fan someone chucked out, and a television – both of which he was able to get working again. “Almost everything you don’t want anymore can be repaired, reused or repurposed,” he says. “The water bottle you’re drinking out of, the paper in your notebook, the clothes you’re wearing, even the strips of leather on your shoes – it’s all worth something!”
Twelve thousand tons of garbage a day, and more to come
As the Thai capital grows, so does the amount of solid waste its residents dispose of everyday. In just one year, the amount of rubbish Bangkokians generate rose by 800 tons per day and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) currently has to deal with an estimated 4.4 million tons of urban trash a year. With just 2,000 garbage trucks, the city’s collection service is seriously overburdened and the municipal authorities have begun looking to private companies and recycling campaigns to help remedy the situation.
Loong Sompong, however, was on the case decades ago. It started when he began contemplating why there was always so much garbage in his neighbourhood. “It was filthy and stinking and not at all pleasant,” he says. As with the city’s fire engines, the sizeable garbage trucks are unable to penetrate smaller lanes and garbage remained uncollected for days at a time. “I decided to map out different routes that would meet up with the collection sites where the big garbage trucks stop,” explains Loong Sompong. “In that way I could help keep the neighbourhood clean.”
Three times a day, including one round after midnight to meet the early morning garbage collection, Loong Sompong sets off with an empty push cart to load up on rubbish. He does his best to convince homeowners and vendors to separate their trash but, if they haven’t, he’s not above digging around in their bins for plastic bottles or tin cans that can be sold to recycling companies.
“At first I was a bit embarrassed doing this kind of work,” he says, “but not any more. Now, after years of doing this, I’ve had such enthusiastic support from people that I feel proud to be keeping this neighbourhood clean!”
Bangkok’s streets are lined with silver and gold
Loong Sompong doesn’t ask for money but people often give him a few hundred baht at the end of the month and food vendors treat him to the occasional free meal. The rest of his income, he makes off selling whatever he has been able to salvage. “I like to tell people that the streets are lined with silver and gold,” he says. “I’ve found all sorts of valuable items in trash bins. I’ve found televisions, radios… Once I even found a gold necklace – only once in all these years, though!”
At the end of each route, Loong Sompong dumps the wet rubbish at a spot where it can be easily picked up by municipal garbage trucks and sets about sorting the recyclable materials – paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, glass bottles, tin cans – so that he can sell it to the representative of a recycling plant who comes twice a month to pick up whatever he has collected.
Most material is sold by weight, with metal being the most cost effective – one kilo of tin cans can be sold for 15 baht while a kilo of beer bottles will go for only one baht or less. Used A4 office paper has the best return on paper products at seven baht a kilo compared to newspaper, which raises just four baht depending on current prices. In all, the neighbourhood throws away enough rubbish that Loong Sompong is able to make up to 12,000 baht a month. Across Bangkok, many other scrap collectors (known in Thai as saleng) patrol the streets on motorized tricycles doing similar work and making a living off what others throw away.
Avoid drink, drugs, and gambling
Loong Sompong was born into a large family of 12 children in rural Buri Ram, one of Thailand’s poorest areas in the Northeastern region. Unable to look after all their children, his parents sent him to Bangkok at the age of eight years old under the care of a monk. “I stayed at the monk’s temple in Bangkok and found odd jobs around the temple. I did whatever I could – I’d carry stuff at the market or wait on customers at noodle stalls. I managed to save up enough money to pay for my school uniform and textbooks and was able to put myself through high school.”
Since then, Loong Sompong has had various jobs, including 12 years working on an American airbase in northeastern Thailand during the Vietnam War. These days, he works as a night guard for a row of townhouses in Bangkok’s central business district. The owner provides him and his family with free accommodation in a spare room, though he receives no formal salary.
“The city was a different place back when I was young,” he recalls. “It was a much more caring place. Now there are so many ways that families can fall apart – husbands don’t spend much time at home because they’re out drinking, wives and mothers get into debt with gambling, and kids drop out of school because they get hooked on drugs. To live well here, you have to avoid all these things. I do, and I’ve been able to look after my family and send my kids to university through hard work, frugal living, and caring about my neighbours.”
From banana leaves to Styrofoam
It’s not just the nature of the city that has changed, but the nature of garbage. Loong Sompong remembers when vendors still wrapped food in banana leaves or old newspapers. “The use of plastic bags increases every year,” he says. “And the other thing you never used to see is Styrofoam. This is the worst substance because it’s the one thing you can’t do anything else with – the only way to get rid of it is to incinerate it.”
These changes make Loong Sompong’s role in the neighbourhood all the more important. “I’m always trying to educate people about how to organize their trash,” he says. “All I ask is that you separate the wet from the dry and tie the wet rubbish up tightly in a plastic bag so it doesn’t leak. These simple steps will make it easier for those of us who have taken on the job of dealing with your rubbish.”