“Garbage collecting is my job. I can’t get other jobs because of my age. I have to continue doing this. If I don’t do this, then I can’t afford meals.” So says Song Gang-sub, one of Seoul’s many street recyclers.

Song once had a small business and then worked as a day labourer before getting into waste picking five years ago. He works almost every day returning 500-700 kilograms of recyclables in three to four trips, combing the City Hall and Myeongdong neighbourhoods.

Many of the waste pickers like Song are too old to find other jobs, but some work elsewhere part-time. All of them face long working hours and their busiest time is late at night when the stores discard the day’s trash. Scrap metals such as iron, copper and stainless steel earn the most money.

Song’s trip today raked in more than 24,000 won ($24) and he usually makes about 1 million won ($1,000) a month. However other waste pickers coming into the depot said they made 5,000 won ($5) per day, receiving 70 won ($0.07) per kilogram they collect. Waste pickers in Senegal and South Africa can make up to $800 per month according to a UN report on waste picking in Africa.

Gold Resources, a depot near Seoul station, recycles about 300 tonnes of garbage a month. While much of it comes in on trucks, a steady trickle arrives by carts pushed and pulled by waste pickers.

Those in the business see its challenges. “As you can see, this is a hard job. These garbage pickers collect trash on the street or get some from people throwing it away,” says Lee Bum-shik, owner of the depot. “People in difficult circumstances do it, many of them are homeless.”

The depot receives and sorts all kinds of recyclables, which are then picked up by companies specialising in specific materials such as plastics, cans and bottles. The materials then go on to ‘zero waste’ facilities that turn the old into new materials used in everything from construction parts to children’s toys.

The recycling industry in Korea has recently been hit by declining values of materials, still UNEP estimates show the economic benefits of recycling reach half a billion dollars a year. South Korea’s municipal recycling rate now tops that of EU countries targets, although with less government involvement in the collecting.

Worldwide between one and two percent of the population makes their living from recycling or waste picking. But moves are underway to formalise the industry with schemes to support its workers. Particularly in Brazil and India, the only countries where laws have been passed allowing access to healthcare, pensions and cooperatives.

The waste picker Song didn’t have such lofty demands. “I just don’t want people to look down on us. So I hope people smile when we pass them by.”