Street Talk

Earnest Wong is the co-founder of The Sec­ond Box, a so­cial en­ter­prise that buys card­board boxes from el­derly scav­engers for three times the mar­ket price be­fore re­selling them. He tells Kate Lok about chang­ing so­ci­ety’s at­ti­tudes to­wards the plight of the

HK Magazine - - UPFRONT -

HK Magazine: What’s the story behind The Sec­ond Box?

Earnest Wong: While mov­ing house, I found out that a brand new card­board box sells for $10-20 in shops. That’s when my friend and co-founder of The Sec­ond Box, Her­bert Wu, came up with the idea of buy­ing used boxes from el­derly scav­engers in­stead of wast­ing money on new ones. Her­bert of­fered to buy a box from a woman for $5, which she hap­pily ac­cepted.

HK: Why did you start the com­pany?

EW: El­derly scav­engers earn an av­er­age of 70 cents for ev­ery kilo of card­board, which is around the weight of one medium-sized card­board box. The el­derly have spent a life­time work­ing hard, so why can’t we give them a sta­ble re­tired life? Why are they ex­cluded by so­ci­ety? But the sad truth is that the re­cy­cling busi­ness is strug­gling too. Card­board waste is sold to main­land pa­per fac­to­ries for roughly $1,300 per ton. Af­ter pay­ing rent and wages, the profit margin isn’t that high. That’s why the el­derly get so lit­tle. But what if we bought used boxes from scav­engers at a higher price, and at the same time reused the boxes? With this in mind, we sub­mit­ted a busi­ness pro­posal as our en­try in a busi­ness com­pe­ti­tion at our univer­sity. That’s how we were awarded $100,000 to start The Sec­ond Box.

HK: What’s a typ­i­cal day like for you at The Sec­ond Box?

EW: Four times a week, we push a trol­ley out onto the streets of She­ung Wan and col­lect card­board boxes from el­derly scav­engers. We meet with them at a spe­cific time and place and buy their boxes, for $2 per kilo. We then clean, stack and la­bel them at our of­fice be­fore re­selling them to shops and the public. I’ve also been or­ga­niz­ing craft work­shops for kids and par­ents to ed­u­cate them about up­cy­cling and so­cial is­sues like the wealth gap, the ag­ing pop­u­la­tion and poverty, so that kids are aware of the sto­ries behind these craft projects.

HK: You must have some mem­o­rable tales.

EW: Last Novem­ber, my team­mates and I were try­ing to find card­board boxes in She­ung Wan when we passed an al­ley and saw an el­derly woman with a huge stack of them. We rushed to­wards her and asked if she would sell them, but she ran away.

She prob­a­bly thought we were a bunch of hooli­gans! An­other el­derly woman who took the trash out for a small su­per­mar­ket was re­luc­tant to sell us her boxes at first. Now she ac­cu­mu­lates a stack of boxes at a se­cret lo­ca­tion for us to col­lect on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. She tells us to pay her back later, and has even started in­tro­duc­ing us to some of her fel­low scav­enger friends. She keeps invit­ing us to eat ice cream with her, and wants to treat us to yum cha. The best part is see­ing this trust and friend­ship we have built with these el­derly peo­ple. It took us a while to get to know our con­trib­u­tors, but we now have a com­mu­nity of about 12-13 el­derly peo­ple who sell us boxes reg­u­larly. They aren’t our ben­e­fi­cia­ries: They are our busi­ness part­ners.

HK: Is it ever a dif­fi­cult job?

EW: Al­ways. When we started, our main cus­tomers were dried seafood stores in She­ung Wan. We had to knock on ev­ery sin­gle door. At first store own­ers didn’t care. The first batch of 10 boxes we sold took hours of scour­ing the streets un­der the blaz­ing sun—all for $5! I couldn’t be­lieve how lit­tle I earned hav­ing spent so much ef­fort. It was dis­cour­ag­ing: I’d just grad­u­ated from univer­sity and my par­ents were urg­ing me to find a steady job. They thought I was pick­ing up trash for a liv­ing. But now our busi­ness has gained a lot more at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially since we started sell­ing boxes to the public, and my dad is show­ing more in­ter­est. While it’s a very tough job, I won’t give up on this busi­ness any time soon.

Think out­side the box by check­ing out Earnest and his team’s so­cially re­spon­si­ble busi­ness at thesec­ond­

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