Cycling 80km a day, hours on foot: How UAE's 'carton men' collect tonnes of boxes every day

According to one of the collectors, more than 15 tonnes of cardboard boxes are collected from Deira alone, on a daily basis


SM Ayaz Zakir

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Photo taken by Marco Fraschetti as part of his Cartonman Project
Photo taken by Marco Fraschetti as part of his Cartonman Project

Published: Sat 11 Mar 2023, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 11 Mar 2023, 10:27 PM

Tonnes of carton boxes are generated daily across many Dubai and Sharjah localities. These boxes are either dumped outside shops or at a point where they are collected.

It is the 'carton men' who pick them up: They would either stack piles of them behind their cycle or carry them on their heads to collection points. Hundreds of them bike around neighbourhoods, but for many residents, they remain 'invisible'.

Khaleej Times visited Dubai's Deira, Satwa, some industrial areas, and many places in Sharjah, where these men operate in large numbers.

Haneef (not his real name), one of the men in Satwa, told Khaleej Times: “I have been collecting cartons for the last 16 years. Almost every shop here knows my name, and I visit each shop at the same time every single day.”

He collects over a hundred kilogrammes of cartons daily from nearly 60 shops in Satwa. “I start my work at 6am. My first stop in the morning and last in the evening are groceries and supermarkets because they start their day early and generate a sizeable amount of cartons,” he said.

After toiling hard throughout the day, Haneef makes Dh50 to Dh80 daily. “At times, a restaurant offers me a break and lunch, which saves my money.”

Shashi, an Indian expat from Hyderabad, makes his way toward Deira as early as 5am to collect the cartons of the previous day. “A cleaning company has undertaken the job of collecting cartons from Deira. I collect the cartons and hand them over to the company executives deputed for this job,” he said.

By 2pm, he manages to pick up nearly 100kg of these boxes. “I collect from the business establishments here and dump them at the company’s collection points. There are over 30 collection points in Deira alone,” said Shashi.


According to these carton men, there are over 150 men who operate from Deira alone. “One person collects nearly 100-200kg of carton every day. This means over 15 tonnes of these boxes are collected daily," he added.

Due to the proximity and number of shops in Deira, these men collect the boxes by walking. However, that is not the case in Sharjah. “I start at 7 in the morning and collect over 20-30kg of cartons until 1pm,” said Aziz, who operates from Industrial Area 6, Sharjah.

Taking the heaps of cartons from car spare parts stores, electronics stores, food shops etc., Aziz dumps them at a yard in Industrial Area 10. “I ride my cycle for more than 6km to collect the cartons and another 6km to dump them at the yard,” said Aziz.

Aziz cycles for nearly 80km every day collecting and dumping cartons and earns Dh60 daily. “At times, I get to earn extra Dh20-30,” said Aziz, who collects these boxes until 9pm.

This has been the routine for Aziz for the last eight years. With this earning, he managed to conduct his daughter’s marriage last year. “I have even constructed a small house with the earning here,” added Aziz.

One Italian expat did notice them, however, and decided to put them under the spotlight. Marco Fraschetti, a performing arts consultant, photographer, and musician living in the UAE for the last 20 years, started a project to give them the visibility they deserve. He has started an Instagram page, ‘Cartonman Project.’

This page helps the ‘carton men’ adopt safe practices and Fraschetti’s next step is to speak to them and to interview them on camera to know more about what they do, perhaps even follow them throughout their day.

Fraschetti now plans to hand them visibility jackets with illuminated strips so that they can be safe on the roads at night and plans to curate an exhibition later this year to create awareness about these men and to educate the public about the work they do.

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