Glass recycler the last of his kind

Paramasiwam working at his recycling shop in Lebuh Victoria, Penang. — Photos: CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

IN recycling collection hubs all around Penang, large signs with ‘X’ over glass bottles are often seen, indicating that glass is not accepted.

Only paper, cardboard, plastic and metal can be put into the bins for recycling.

While used in some shape or form by almost everyone, glass is the least popular material for recycling in the state.

“Currently, glass bottles have little or no value, especially cosmetic glass.

“They also take up space and are hard to handle because they are fragile, ” explained Penang Island City Council (MBPP) chief assistant environmental health officer Mohd Zamzuri Hussain.

While private recyclers usually reject glass, MBPP accepts recyclable glass through their weekly house collection drives.

Paramasiwam attending to a visitor bringing bottles to the recycling shop.Paramasiwam attending to a visitor bringing bottles to the recycling shop.

Mohd Zamzuri said glass that the council collects is channelled to two associations – the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merits Society and volunteer organisation South Zest.

“South Zest is a volunteer company that helps send the glass to other places for recycling at its own cost.

“Tzu Chi also works together with MBPP to collect glass at its

collection centres in Taman Sri Nibong and Taman Lumba Kuda, ” he added.

While these organisations send glass out of state for recycling, there is one lone glass recycler who is believed to be the last of his kind in Penang.

Glass accepted

K. Paramasiwam still operates from the same shop that his relatives opened over 90 years ago.

It is located in an obscure warehouse at 120A, Lebuh Victoria in the heart of George Town.

“This shop was opened by my relatives from India in 1926. It has not moved since then.

“They started with recycling gunny sacks and bottles because that was what was used by the traders at that time.

“In the 1980s, gunny sacks were not so popular so they started recycling big plastic sacks used to transport things like rice and sugar, ” Paramasiwam said.

Business for that too dwindled over the years and they then turned exclusively to glass.

Taking over the operations of the shop in 2013 after his retirement, the former production manager said the profit margin for recycling glass is narrow.

The 66-year-old explained that unlike paper or metal that is broken down and made into other things, glass bottles are reused in their original state after being thoroughly cleaned and stripped of their labels.

The shop pays an average of 5sen to 15sen for every bottle it receives and spends 10sen to 20sen more for the cleaning of each piece.

A sign indicating that no glass is accepted at a recycling point in Sungai Ara.A sign indicating that no glass is accepted at a recycling point in Sungai Ara.

Clean bottles are then either sent back to glass manufacturers or sold to small businesses that need bottles to pack goods like sauces or honey.

Because the number of buyers of recycled glass is limited, Paramasiwam is selective in the glass he accepts.

“I cannot take everything because it would take up a lot of space and I would be stuck with the problem of disposing of all the glass I cannot use, ” he said.

Among the glass he does accept are liquor and beer bottles and a variety of commonly used sauce and condiment bottles. The glass network

Paramasiwam does not go out to collect glass, especially after the Covid-19 outbreak that hit his business hard and forced him to man the shop alone.

“Even before the pandemic, glass recycling was not popular not just because of the profit margin.

“It is more that the supply of glass from Penang is not enough to make it profitable for recyclers, ” he said.

To ensure a steady supply, Paramasiwam also buys glass from Thailand to top up the glass he gets from locals which accounts for only a maximum of 10% of his shop’s needs.

This supply line from Thailand has been affected by the pandemic as well.

The warehouse is open Monday to Saturday and many poor residents are well-acquainted with Paramasiwam’s business.

“We have a lot of old people in George Town that go around every day collecting recyclables.

“Hawkers in coffeeshops here also keep their empty bottles for these elderly people to help them.

“When I want to go on holiday,

I have to tell the people who come exactly when I am closing the shop or they become angry!

“Many of them live in flats and do not have space to store recyclables, ” said Parasiwam, in between bantering in Hokkien with a visitor to the shop.

After watching fellow glass recyclers in Penang close their business one by one since the 1980s and now hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, Paramasiwam has long learnt that business ebbs and flows.

“In the 1940 and 1950s, this shop employed 25 workers.

“I also had good times and at one point, had three workers. Now, I can’t even afford to pay one worker to help me.

“But in business, there are good times and there are bad times, ” he said.

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