26 January 2020
Earnest Wong is hoping his social enterprise can help create a greener Hong Kong and help street cleaners and scavengers earn extra money. Photo: HKEJ
Earnest Wong is hoping his social enterprise can help create a greener Hong Kong and help street cleaners and scavengers earn extra money. Photo: HKEJ

How thinking out of the box inspired this social enterprise

The idea struck him like a bolt from out of the blue.

And just like that, Earnest Wong had a business model for a startup — a social enterprise that collects and upcycles used cardboard boxes.

That was two years ago when the budding entrepreneur fresh out of college and his family were moving house.   

They needed containers for small items, so Wong went to a stationery store and bought a HK$10 cardboard box, with plans to buy more.

“When I got home, they were already stuffing things into used boxes which they got from a cleaning woman at a department store,” he said.

The boxes were nearly new and sturdy and one look at them sent his imagination racing.

What if he could pay a whole bunch of cleaning ladies and street sweepers for used boxes?

And what if he could flatten them, pack them and sell them to people who need extra boxes around the house or for moving things?

Could this perhaps create an enterprise that would enable low-income people to make extra money?

As it turned out, the answer was “yes” to all of the above. 

Two years later, Wong and three college classmates are proud owners of the aptly named The Second Box (拾易紙長).

Last year, they won the Entrepreneurship Award of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Micro Fund for Innovation.

But having secured financing for their startup, Wong and his friends needed to overcome some daunting obstacles.

The first was family resistance.

It took them some doing to convince their families to go along with the idea and pitch in some of their own money.

Then there was the small matter of supply and transport.

There were not enough good boxes and no moving company would handle them for hygiene reasons, Wong said.

They sought advice from a professor and that led to a visit to Sai Wan where they persuaded several seafood shops to try their boxes at HK$5 for 10.

They found that many seafood shops needed bigger boxes, so they began to offer them in different sizes.

But reaching out to street cleaners and scavengers who collect these boxes was easier said than done — they did not always want to sell the boxes to Wong and his partners.

At one time, they were mistaken for thugs by an elderly scavenger, Wong said.

“We pulled a trolley and asked them to sell us the boxes every day,” he said.

“Some of them would give us just one or two and they would wave us off. Then they found out who we were and that what we were doing was no joke.”

The Second Box has been in business for six months, making enough money to cover the rent on a small warehouse.

The partners are looking to break even anytime soon.

That might come sooner now that they have started collecting used boxes from big companies, ensuring steadier and bigger supply.

Also, they’re combing every corner for scavengers with plans to turn them into box-collection brigades.  

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 3.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Earnest Wong (second from right) and his co-founders of The Second Box won the Entrepreneurship Award of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Micro Fund for Innovation in 2015. Photo: HKEJ

The Second Box organises workshops to raise environmental awareness among children and parents. Earnest Wong (above) recalled how they knocked on doors to try to get customers. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal