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Picture this: You have 100 kilograms of drinking cans.

If I were to buy them from you, the market rate would be a measly S$1 per kilogram. I could flip and resell them for S$1.20 per kilogram, netting myself a tidy profit of S$20 if all 100 kilograms were sold.

The catch is that I must travel all the way from Kaki Bukit to Tuas to collect the cans from you, and to Serangoon thereafter to sell them to a buyer. Do you think I should still make the trip?

Don’t be mistaken, this is not a brain-busting mathematics problem that will send primary schoolers weeping into their textbooks. This is a real-world conundrum that Bryan Peh faces nearly every day.

As the founder of waste management platform Earth Recycling Services, the 30-year-old must weigh the costs and benefits of every recycling opportunity that comes his way.

This not only overturns our stereotypical perception that recycling is a lucrative business as it monetises things people no longer need.

It also shines a light on the traditional notion of the ‘karang guni’ trade, where scrap dealers are often depicted as middle-aged individuals traversing neighbourhoods with a horn and trolley, soliciting used electronics and old newspapers in various Chinese dialects.

However, the face of scrap dealing has evolved significantly now. It is no longer confined to the stereotypical image, but rather encompasses a diverse demographic — including educated millennials holding degrees.

Is there a difference between a karang guni and a professional recycling service?

Founded in January 2022, Bryan shared that his startup specialises in disposal, dismantling, and recycling of general waste and bulky items.

When moving house, or when companies relocate or close for business, they often leave behind waste, furniture and documents that need to be discarded appropriately.

Earth Recycling Services singapore
Earth Recycling Services specialises in disposal and recycling of bulky items / Image credit: Earth Recycling Services

This is where Bryan comes in. He will sort out the items that needs to be destroyed and bring back anything salvageable, from sofas to office chairs and even refrigerators, to his facility for proper disassembly.  

Unlike a typical karung guni, Bryan does not set his eyes on any and every unused item. His main objective is to minimise wastage by reducing the number of items that will end up in the landfill or incineration at the end of the day.

This means he is not interested in dealing with food waste, chemicals, or biohazard materials — those require special licenses and stricter protocols. Likewise, he does not bother with recyclables that can be easily placed inside recycling bins that are readily available across neighbourhoods.

At a glance, we may appear to be collecting unwanted items. In reality, we are helping individuals and companies to declutter and recycle whatever they no longer need, and a fee is charged for that. You don’t have to engage us if the quantity of items you intend to recycle is small and you can do it by yourself.

– Bryan Peh, founder of Earth Recycling Services

Of course, not everything is as straightforward. Not all plastic, glass, or wood are created equal, so it doesn’t mean that if an item is made from these materials, they can naturally be recycled. Bryan lamented that this is where the tricky part lies.

Most of the time, he needs to determine at the point of collection whether an item is recyclable or not. For wood and glass, once they have been treated with varnish or chemicals, they will have to be disposed.

Earth Recycling Services singapore
Bryan says not many people understood the costs and processes needed to dismantle and recycle bulky items / Image credit: Earth Recycling Services

As such, there’s a lot more to running a recycling service than just hauling away junk and reselling it. Assessing items, transporting them back to the facility, sorting through the mess, and pulling them apart — these are all part of an expensive and time-consuming endeavour.

When it comes to recycling, people tend to think about how much we are going to earn from selling the waste. They seldom think about the operating cost – how much we are spending to recycle as much waste as possible. There is no way we can sustain ourselves, if we roam around aimlessly or go door-to-door asking for unwanted items.

– Bryan Peh, founder of Earth Recycling Services

From freelance actor to avid recycler

Bryan noted what a recycling business truly does is seldom shared with people in Singapore. Furthermore, despite the presence of recycling bins and campaigns for zero carbon emissions, not many people are aware of how to recycle correctly.

Instead, it’s common to see food waste, unwashed bottles and other rubbish carelessly tossed into the recycling bins. The sad truth is, once the contents are contaminated, they will end up in the landfill or incineration, defeated in their quest to be repurposed.

I hope Earth Recycling Services can come in to bridge the gap. We will be a brand that advocates people to take ownership and responsibility for recycling.

– Bryan Peh, founder of Earth Recycling Services
karang guni singapore
Growing up, Bryan actively helped out in his family’s karung guni business / Image credit: Bryan Peh

Growing up, Bryan has played an active role in helping with his family’s karung guni business. That’s why he sees Earth Recycling Services not just as his personal commitment, but also an opportunity to broaden what his family has been doing all through the years.

Nevertheless, Bryan does not come to this consensus immediately. He loves to perform and used to be a freelance actor taking up roles in various television commercials. It was only when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his acting career came to an abrupt halt that he turned his attention back to starting a recycling business.

bryan peh actor
Bryan enjoys acting and has appeared in TV commercials / Image credit: Bryan Peh

“I used to be a timid child, to the point that I am very uncomfortable in front of the camera and dislike taking photos,” Bryan recalled. “At the same time, I have many ambitions. There are many people whom I wanted to be. Through TV dramas, I realised artists have the freedom to try out different occupations as they portray different roles. That was when I started fantacising being an actor.”

In fact, Bryan said his acting career changed him. He is no longer afraid to express himself and openly shares his day-to-day work on social media for others to have an insider peek into the lives of a recycler.

Although Bryan confessed he still has a soft spot about being on a film set, he has never regarded setting up Earth Recycling Services as a detour from his real passion.

“I see a lot of potential in running a recycling business in Singapore, especially when it comes to tackling bigger issues like overconsumption and sustainability,” he noted.

Indeed, according to the latest figures released by the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore’s recycling rate in 2022 fell to 12 per cent, the lowest in over a decade.

Recycling is a lonely business

Bryan recalled receiving a whooping 40 pieces of standing fan in a week. Surprisingly, a significant portion of these fans were still in working condition, despite being discarded by their previous owners simply because they did not meet their desired level of optimal performance.

Thus, Bryan believes implementing a charge for single-use plastic bags and incentivise the return of plastic bottles may not be sufficient to tackle the root of the problem.

“We genuinely need to change the way we consume, and that is very hard to instill. There’s a lot more work we can do,” he pointed out.

Bryan says he still enjoys being on a film set but his priority now will be his recycling business / Image credit: Bryan Peh

Still, Bryan’s decision to go all-in on the recycling business raised some eyebrows. Many couldn’t fathom why he would abandon the comfort of an office job for the sweat and toil of a recycling centre.

“There is a general misconception about the profession and a stereotypical impression of how people who work in this line of business should look like,” he added. Furthermore, many Singaporeans are accustomed to a convenience-driven lifestyle, and the prospect of putting in extra effort for recycling seems daunting.

I’ve had clients that said, ‘Oh, I am too lazy to bring all these items to the recycling bins, can you do it for me?’ Some would say, ‘Oh, I am giving you my things, why do I still need to pay you?’ I think most people have the heart to recycle, but they are not ready to fully commit, so we are working on finding a perfect balance.

– Bryan Peh, founder of Earth Recycling Services

To take Earth Recycling Services to the next level, Bryan is currently on the lookout for partnerships that will help him educate more individuals and organisations about the merits of recycling and enforce better recycling practices. However, he admits that convincing others to join his crusade is no mean feat.

“It’s a gruelling, time-consuming job with modest pay,” he conceded. “I’m mostly a one-man band, working into the night to invoice clients and update the social media platforms. It’s a lonely business. But I’m confident that things will improve when more people realise the value of recycling, eventually.”

Featured Image Credit: Earth Recycling Services

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Vulcan Post aims to be the knowledge hub of Singapore and Malaysia.

© 2021 GRVTY Media Pte. Ltd.
(UEN 201431998C.)