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The original recyclers of Singapore


(Hopefully that alliteration made sense, I tried my best)

Hey everyone!

Today I will be talking about our countries “best” recyclers who play a key part in our country’s journey to being a ‘Zero-Waste-Nation’  — ‘rag-and-bone’ men, or locally known as the karung guni.

A karung guni truck filled with newspaper to be sent for recycling. (Image: Mokkie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

These wonderful men go around housing estates in their truck sounding their very distinctive horns  (hence the alliteration on top) to inform residents that they are around for residents to sell recyclables to them. Residents most commonly sell newspapers, however, they also buy clothes and old electronics such as radio sets, and even the bulkier television sets. After collection, the items will be sent and sold to a central warehouse where they will be recycled or repurposed to be used again. (Source)

My domestic helper told me that the karung guni comes around our estate about once a week, sometimes a little more often than that even. Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to catch him to find out a little more but I am very pleasantly surprised to know how frequently they come around!

My home’s collection of newspapers. This could fetch approximately S$2.50. (Image: VICTORIA LIM)

However, a few issues with relying on the karung guni have been surfaced. Some say that the karung guni never visit their residential area, or do not do so regularly.  Moreover, since they are operating as a business after all, the items they buy from residents depends on demand and supply. Hence, during some periods if there is an oversupply of newspapers, for example, they would not want to buy it from residents. (Source)

Despite all this, the karung guni men collect nearly nine times as much recyclables than our nation’s recycling efforts(Source)! That just goes to show how important they are to help our country close the loop on much of our waste. Another crucial advantage they present will be the presence of a real-life vetter who is able to check the condition of recyclables on the spot. They would know what type of waste can be recycled and how to avoid cross-contamination of the recyclables. (Source) Almost seems like the perfect solution for the “lazy” ones who do not recycle properly.

Despite their importance, like with most jobs in Singapore involving “manual-labour”, this is a sunset industry, with working conditions and unstable income being huge issues. This is definitely a huge pity seeing as they contribute so much to our recycling scene. However, there have been a few modern karung guni businesses run by young entrepreneurs so do check them out here and here!




  1. Hi Victoria!

    Your post on karung guni men definitely stirred up memories of my childhood! Unfortunately in my neighborhood, the karung guni men have been outcompeted by companies running cash-for-trash programmes. These companies (I think Veolia and Colex?) setup stations every Sunday at void decks to collect recyclables, then paying residents based on the type and weight of the items.

    Do you think the ‘incentivisation’ of recycling is overall positive? (As in people recycling simply for the money, but not knowing why it is important for the environment)


    • Hi JJ,

      I did not read about such cash-for-trash programmes from big firms but one karung guni who was interviewed for an article did mention that despite the decline in numbers of karung guni, many young people have also stepped up to collect recyclables, similar to what the karung guni do, except no money is involved usually.

      As for the general public, I do not think many are doing it for the sole purpose of recycling as the karung guni have been around for decades, before the rise of the ‘green’ movements today. I feel that many are doing it for the convenience, especially with bulkier items, as they can conveniently give it to the karung guni, or such recycling programs, while earning some money. That being said, I believe that even without the money, many would still recycle if the convenience of karung guni, or similar programs still continue.


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