From Trash to Treasure: The Life Journey Of a Piece of Paper
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post.

All images by Khaliq Masuri


In case you haven’t realised, it’s December. And if you happen to be the parent of a primary school student, you are likely doing one of two things:

1. Going on an overseas trip with your child to reward him or her for working hard during the academic year

2. Doing a massive spring cleaning and getting rid of the 7000 assessment books your forced your child to complete.

If you fall under the second category, the odds are that you’ve contributed to this insanity:


Don't worry, I didn't whip out a molotov cocktail to burn the books a la Qin Shi Huang
Don't worry, I didn't whip out a molotov cocktail to burn the books a la Qin Shi Huang
You will find this scene in Tuas, in a paper mill in owned by Tay Paper Recycling, a recycled paper exporter based here in Singapore. Here, paper in all forms is sorted, compressed, and packed before being exported to foreign countries, where it is recycled into new paper products.

Tay Paper is one of the market leaders in the recycling sector, and they have almost 30 years of experience, having incorporated the company in 1989. Prior to this, they had already been in the recycling business for twenty years.

Andrew Tay, head of Business Development, is in charge of the privately owned company which exports about 4000 tonnes of paper every month. They have come a long way since his grandfather was a humble karang guni man.


These days, their business model includes a service (creatively named ‘EZ Shred’) that offers companies a “one-stop solution” to shred their confidential documents. With the implementation of the PDPA (Personal Data Protection Act), this has become more pertinent than ever.

As part of this operation, vans from Tay Paper visit companies with mobile shredders, shredding documents in the presence of clients. These documents can often weigh a few hundred kilograms, especially in industries that are heavy on paper usage. Most of their regular clients include auditing firms, banks, and law firms.

“Most of the bigger companies come to us weekly or bi-weekly, but some come to us for their annual spring cleaning.”

This entire process takes 15-20 minutes, and after the shredding is complete, a certificate is presented to the client, and an efficiency report is sent to them to let them know how much paper or how many trees they saved.

“Companies like to put these green features into their financial reports as part of their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility),” Andrew tells me.

Aside from these companies, Tay Paper also relies on the everyday karang guni man for their supply of paper-based recyclables such as cardboard, old newspapers, and regular paper.

Somewhere in the Ang Mo Kio industrial area is an empty warehouse unit owned by Tay Paper. Here, karang gunis come from all over the island to unload and sell whatever they’ve collected from the day.

Each day, up to 3 tonnes is collected.

I was surprised to learn that individual karang gunis can bring in up to 300 kg of paper-based recyclables, and this includes the frail old women you see ambling around the neighbourhood, collecting cardboard.

“Some of these aunties are over 80 years old, but they can collect almost 200 kg of cardboard everyday, push it on their carts all the way here and sell it to us,” Kenneth, Sales Manager at Tay Paper, tells me.

It is not an easy life, but for collecting cardboard from 4am till 9am, these women can sometimes make around $50 or $60 each day. And they do this everyday, without fail.

Traditional Karang Gunis like 65-year old Mr Tan are able to bring in more because he has a truck to drive around and carry his load. However, this is a double-edged sword as the miscellaneous costs associated with owning and driving a vehicle in Singapore can add up, taking away from his humble earnings.

Mr Tan weighing his A4 paper, which can fetch him a higher price than cardboard.
Mr Tan weighing his A4 paper, which can fetch him a higher price than cardboard.
“Don’t say petrol. Now I buy newspaper from people at HDB I need to park my lorry also. 1 hour parking already more than 1 dollar, how much you think I can earn?” he laments.

Mr Tan sorting the paper according to their quality
Mr Tan sorting the paper according to their quality
Mr Tan purchases old newspapers and other paper recyclables from the public at 10 cents per kilogram, and sells them for 20 to 30 cents to paper mills like Tay Paper, depending on the market value, which fluctuates based on the demand from the recycling mills from abroad.

Mr Tan unloading the paper he collected.
Mr Tan unloading the paper he collected.
Because there are four other paper mills within the same industrial area, the price that the paper mills purchase the recyclables at are displayed in the front of the shop.

ONP: Old Newspapers
ONP: Old Newspapers
For his work, Mr Tan is earns about $1,000 a month, although it is never a sure thing. On the day I visited, he collected over $100 for his efforts.

Mr Tan counting his earnings for the day.
Mr Tan counting his earnings for the day.
After the paper is weighed, the Tay Paper staff transfers it to an industrial compactor with a forklift, where it gets compressed. Then, it sits in there until the end of the day, when a truck then brings it back to the mill in Tuas to be processed.

Trucks being weighed on a digital scale that is accurate to the nearest 1kg
Trucks being weighed on a digital scale that is accurate to the nearest 1kg
When I take my first steps into the premises of Tay Paper’s headquarters in Tuas, I am instantly bombarded by the distinct hybrid aroma of chocolate and malt we’ve come to know and love as Milo.

“There was a shipment of recyclable paper which had Milo powder in it today,” Dominic explained. According to him, a different smell permeates the paper mill each day, and it ranges from good to bad.

“Sometimes, we get cardboard from the wet market, then the whole place will end up smelling like fish. Then during Chinese New Year, the whole place will smell like mandarin oranges, cause that is the time when we will get all the boxes that hold the oranges,” he adds.

Paper being unloaded
Paper being unloaded
When the recyclables reach the mill, they are first sorted into one of eight categories. There is Sorted White Ledger, Old Newspaper, Mixed Paper, Sorted Office Paper, Old Corrugated Cartons, Double Lined Kraft Corrugated Cuttings, Hard White Shavings, and Multigrade.

I know. Before I went to the mill, I too assumed that there was only one kind of paper.

Once the recyclables are sorted, they are pushed onto a conveyor belt which feeds it into a industrial compactor, flattening the paper into bales that weigh between 800 to 1000 kg.

Conveyor belt
Conveyor belt
After packing and sealing the bales, they are put in containers to be shipped abroad. To protect the integrity of the product, the containers cannot be opened again until they reach their intended destinations.

“It is practically a vacuum inside. There is no light and because it cannot be reopened, you hear those stories about illegal immigrants hiding in containers to get somewhere. But because there is no air, some of them are dead by the time the ship reaches the port,” Dominic quips.

From there, Tay Paper’s job is over, and the paper goes through the recycling process in countries like China, where they become brand new recycled paper products.

During the tour, I ask Dominic if he thinks Singaporeans do enough to recycle.

“If you go to places like Japan and Taiwan, people carry plastic bags around just so they can throw their rubbish, which is why you hardly see dust bins around.”

He continues, “When I was in Japan, I noticed that even at home, everyone separated their recyclables by the category, meaning the plastics went in one bag while paper went in the other. Here, everything is just thrown into one, which means that the additional step of sorting has to be taken.”

In Singapore at least, there is definitely room for better infrastructure and the cultural shifts needed to ensure that recycling becomes a more seamless process. Yet I can’t help but wonder about the livelihoods of people like Mr Tan and the old women whose lives depend on the cardboard they collect every single day.

If we truly excelled at recycling, what would happen to them?

Perhaps there is a reason why things work the way they do, and some things might be better left untouched.

ps: In case you were wondering, yes, I saved that LKY book.

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