Hong Kong startup Vcycle is looking to reduce plastic waste while empowering marginalised communities. Founder Eric Swinton talks to Hive Life about how his personal story has shaped the company’s meaningful mission.
For Hong Kong residents, it is a common sight to see elderly women hunched over a tattered metal cart stacked high with cardboard scraps, pushing it along the road. The city’s ‘cardboard grannies’ are an occurrence that has almost become normalised, making commuters immune to the hardships on display as part of the landscape of their hugely socially disparate city. Little do they know that these women play a hidden role as an underserved part of the recycling picture in Hong Kong – and that they’re paid just HKD 50 a day to do so. Founded in 2017, Vcycle, short for virtuous cycle, is a social enterprise with a mission to redirect the work of the ‘cardboard grannies,’ giving them the opportunity to sort plastic to create upcycled products instead of scavenging for a living. We speak to Eric about how he saw the social side behind the environmental needs in the city.
Struggling in his personal life, it was a timely connection with a mentor that led Eric to start Vcycle. “Ten years ago, I was going through a very difficult period. I went through a phase where I was drinking and partying a lot. My health suffered and everything else with it, so I was in a downward spiral. Luckily, I met a mentor who is a Buddhist teacher.” Joining his teacher’s charity organisation helping the elderly who lived alone opened his eyes. “I developed compassion for people that I didn’t have before. I was a selfish guy.” Soon, he came across the Waste Picker Platform, learning that there are an estimated number of 1800 waste pickers across the city, predominantly female with an average age of 60-80, who work a full day, but earn less than two hours of Hong Kong’s minimum wage over that time. “I think that was the trigger,” he recounts.
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What is a day in the life of these waste pickers? “The eldest lady I met was 97 in Kwun Tong. She works from morning until late, essentially all hours of the day.” And, despite those long hours, they aren’t rewarded from their work. Rather, they are often stigmatised by the public. “Let’s say that we are in Wanchai; the waste pickers in Wanchai will sell their cardboard to small recycling shops. These recycling shops will pay them only about HKD 30 cents per kg. These small companies will then sell that cardboard to bigger recycling companies, which sells them elsewhere to China, Vietnam or Thailand.”
Observing the unjust cardboard chain in Hong Kong, as well as being acutely aware of Hong Kong’s plastic problem, having previously worked in a company that manufactured eco-friendly corporate gifts, he decided to come up with the Ten Tonne Challenge initiative in October 2018 to target both issues head-on. “I had an idea for the Ten Tonne challenge with the aim of collecting ten tonnes of PET plastic bottles within six months.” Through the challenge, he sought to create jobs for waste pickers, too. But, instead of picking up waste, Eric wanted to divert their efforts to sort plastic instead. “We decided that they should work in a safe and comfortable place. We didn’t want to overwork them,” he says. The collected PET bottles from volunteers are then transferred to a plant in Taiwan that converts them into yarn to make apparel such as tote bags, and the profits redistributed back to the waste pickers to improve their living conditions. Partnering with Hong Kong’s brand new luxury retail sustainability mall K11, Vcycle’s initiative has garnered support from some of Hong Kong’s most high-profile figures – and they’re eager to keep the momentum going. “We exceeded our target by 50%. With the money we’ll receive from selling the bags, we hope to help more elderly cardboard grannies by refurbishing their homes or fixing their furniture or electrical appliances,” says Eric.
Looking forward, Eric has an ambitious vision for Vcycle, focusing on three main areas: “We want to eliminate tough working conditions for ‘cardboard grannies.’ That’s our long term plan. But, it’s quite challenging to get funding.” First, he wants to create a community center in Tun Mun. “We will provide opportunities for them to sort plastics, information for these elderly women on how to get welfare benefits from the government, and provide different activities for them to take part in so that they have an increased sense of wellbeing.” Driven to make a difference, Eric encourages us to think that the sky’s the limit. “Don’t get anxious about what you can do or cannot do. My advice is to seek a mentor. Mentorship is very important – you can’t go about this alone.”