When Herbert Wu Wai-ho said he wanted to make a business out of selling used cardboard boxes, his father called him a “rubbish boy”. Neither friends nor family thought he and his co-founders of the social project startup The Second Box would succeed. Cardboard boxes were worthless, especially used ones. “‘Don’t do it’, they’d say. Or many said we could try, but nobody really believed in us,” says Earnest Wong Yan-hoi.
The boys got their business idea two years ago when both Wong and Wu needed cardboard boxes to move apartments and switch dormitories. They were appalled by the price of new boxes, which were sold for around HK$20 each. Outside a 759 store, Wu caught sight of scavengers gathering discarded boxes. “The boxes were practically new. I bought a couple for HK$5 each,” he tells Young Post. He found out that scavengers only got 50 cents for each box from recycling companies, and thought it would be a great business idea to pay the scavengers more for the boxes, then re-sell them at a higher price. “Most recycling companies take the scavenged boxes to the mainland to be remade into new boxes. By skipping this step, we benefit both the scavengers and the environment,” he said.
He joined fellow Polytechnic University business students Lung Tsan-yu and Kennedy Ho Tang-chun and formed The Second Box. After winning HK$100,000 in a business competition at their school last year, the boys set to work getting the business rolling.
Even though they offered to buy cardboard boxes at four times the price of recycling companies, many scavengers got suspicious of their motives and refused to sell to them. “I remember the first time we approached an elderly lady in Hung Hom. All four of us rushed towards her together, so she must have been quite intimidated,” Ho recalls.
“We wanted to know what life was like for her. So we helped her cut the boxes and went with her to the recycling store. We could sense other people looking at us and just thinking, what are these young boys doing, carting rubbish around?” says Lung.
It took them a whole day to push a 200kg cart piled high with cardboard boxes back and forth four times, earning a total of HK$50 for their hard work. By being on the streets every day, they slowly bonded with a group of Sai Wan scavengers.
“There’s a group of women who completely ignored us at first, but now they give us red packets at Lunar new year, or ask us to go yum cha with them,” says Wong. “It took months, but now we’re like friends.”
Finding buyers was also not easy either. After hundreds of calls, they hadn’t found a single client. Then, someone suggested they try dried seafood shops, which use up to 1,000 boxes each month. “They don’t care about what brand a box is, as long as the quality is good,” Wong explains. Seafood shops buy boxes from mainland providers, who can’t promise a stable supply, so the boys soon found their niche.
Within the first year of starting their company, they now earn roughly HK$10,000 a month, which is enough to rent an office in Wong Chuk Hang.
As well as being able to count celebrities like Denise Ho Wan-see among their admirers, the boys also recently featured in the music video of singer James Ng Yip-kwan.
Boxes are sold in bulk to seafood shops for HK$2.50 to HK$4 each, but the price for individuals ranges from HK$5 to HK$9. “Individual buyers account for only 30 per cent of our client base, but they make up about 70 per cent of our revenue,” Wong explains.
Recently, they won the Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge, earning another HK$300,000.
They are boosting their income by holding workshops for children to play with the boxes and turning them into useful items, like scratching posts for cats.
To collect boxes more efficiently, they are also working with about 700 volunteers from social enterprise Little Green Feet to scout scavengers, and are also collecting boxes directly from businesses.
The future looks promising, but currently Wong and Wu are living on only HK$4,000 a month.
“We originally decided HK$6,000, but we cut that down to use more money to grow the company,” says Wong.
Lung and Ho, who have yet to graduate, work part time. “If we had day jobs and only did this on the side, we probably still wouldn’t have had our first deal,” says Wu. “Without high stakes, it’d be less important to succeed.”
Wong, who was once expelled from school for bad behaviour, says his life changed when he found a goal he was passionate about. “Everyone said we’d fail, and we’re proving them wrong,” he says. “And that’s a great feeling.”