BANGKOK: Thai grandmother Nom Prom-on rummages through rubbish bins looking for bottles, cans and paper to trade for food and other goods at a recycling cooperative providing a lifeline for Bangkok's poor.
Riding an old motorcycle with a rubbish cart attached, the 61-year-old and her husband Rai rise early to beat rival scavengers to claim the best of the city's recyclable trash, which they take to a cash-free "zero baht shop".
The couple have combed bins for decades, but their earnings of less than 10 dollars per day are not always enough to live on, so they turned to the cooperative.
"When we're starving, we can find rubbish to exchange for rice to eat, detergent, soap and everything," said Nom, who also has grandchildren to raise and feed.
By selling to the recycling plants in bulk, the cooperative gets a better rate than individual scavengers would manage on their own.
Profits are then paid back in dividends and other benefits to its members such as life insurance, interest rates from its "rubbish bank" and help paying medical fees.
It is the brainchild of former scavenger Peerathorn Seniwong and his wife Buarin.
"We thought of how we could help the poor -- then we thought of rubbish -- at least every house must have rubbish," Peerathorn, 45, told AFP.
The scheme's 800 members include 35 households of scavengers along with other local people who heard about the shop in an area of eastern Bangkok and now bring their recyclables to trade.
A former security guard and motorcycle taxi driver, Peerathorn came up with the idea after six years of living homeless under an elevated road in Bangkok.
"Sometimes we would have to buy things like fish sauce or rice on credit at shops," said Buarin.
"But people looked down on us as we're poor and they'd wonder whether they would get their money back -- that's why we started our own shop."
Fish sauce, rice, eggs, instant noodles, toothpastes and detergent are among the goods most sought by members, about 20-30 of whom visit the shop each day, Buarin added.
There are several hundred thousand scavengers in Thailand earning about 200-300 baht ($6.5-10) a day, according to Thailand's Institute of Packaging and Recycling Management for Sustainable Environment, which has provided education schemes for members on issues such as hygiene and sorting rubbish.
An estimated quarter of Thailand's 15 million tonnes of garbage a year is recycled -- largely thanks to scavengers rather than efforts by consumers to separate their waste.
The cooperative's success is inspiring others too, with several similar cash-free shops opening up in the capital and elsewhere.
The institute hopes that 80 cash-free recycling shops will be set up across Thailand by the end of 2013.
The project is also generating interest overseas with visitors from as far afield as Singapore, Japan and Mexico coming to see how it works.
Its success reflects changing attitudes towards rubbish, said Gloyta Nathalang, communications and environment director at Tetra Pak (Thailand) Ltd, which runs the country's only plant for recycling used beverage cartons.
"Recycling is not an alien word any more -- people are aware and want to take more action. But I think what we are lacking now is the system in place," she said.
Peerathorn is proud of what he has achieved since his years living homeless under what people used to sarcastically call his hundred million baht roof.
Rubbish collecting has provided a good way to supplement his income, he says, and allows him flexible working hours.
"It's better to work as a scavenger because I don't have to be anyone's employee. Nobody tells me what to do," he said.
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