THE United Nations calls the town of Guiyu, China, the electronic waste capital of the world. And the children of Guiyu have above-average levels of lead in their blood that could severely impact their brains and central nervous systems. These two scary facts have been connected in studies by the Shantou University Medical College – and it’s a connection that Malaysia needs to take heed of. (CNN report on China: The Electronic Wastebasket Of The World.)
Handphones, laptops, desktops, microwaves, TVs, monitors, gaming systems – all the electronic gadgets we can’t live without nowadays – can be lethal if not disposed of properly. Discarded electronics, or e-waste, can contain toxic substances such as the lead that is causing concern in Guiyu along with cadmium, mercury and a host of other heavy metals that can harm human and environmental health.
While Malaysia might not deal with the quantities that China does, we do throw away one million tonnes of e-waste every year, according to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
The scope of the problem is huge. Selangor state Tourism, Consumer Affairs and Environment committee chairman Elizabeth Wong says, “Currently most e-waste goes to landfills and incinerators despite the fact that it can leak hazardous chemicals into landfills and groundwater and streams or release dioxin when burnt that can damage the nervous system.”
E-waste that does not go into landfills can end up in the informal recycling sector, which uses primitive methods to extract base materials from the waste; these include burning circuit boards and using acid to get to the copper and gold in a device, processes that release toxins into the atmosphere and land.
Dr Theng Lee Chong, deputy chairman of the Association of Environmental Consultants and Companies of Malaysia, has personally witnessed these “recyclers” in the back streets of George Town, Penang.
“Open burning creates black smoke and toxic fumes. And dismantling e-waste in the open may result in hazardous substances spilling into the environment. These substances are pushed further by rainfall and groundwater runoff into rivers and the sea, potentially poisoning seafood that we will end up eating,” he says.
Theng hopes that upcoming household e-waste management and control legislation will put an end to improper e-waste treatment by fly-by-night scrap dealers, and also introduce strict standards and licensing.
The legislation will be introduced in 2018, according to a recent Bernama report quoting Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar.
While industrial e-waste disposal is already regulated, Wan Junaidi pointed out in the report that there is no management or regulation of household e-waste, adding, “At present the people are likely to throw household e-waste into the drains, bushes and regular rubbish bins”.
One reason consumers aren’t taking the green option could be because they want to be paid for their e-waste.
In a July report in The Star, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) head of technology development Badaruzzaman Mat Nor commented on the organisation’s phone recycling campaign, saying that “based on our findings thus far ... there were ... parties who wanted incentives in return”.
After all, e-gadgets contain precious metals: According to the estimates of inhabitat.com, there is 34kg of gold, 15kg of palladium, 350kg of silver and 16,000kg of copper in every one million phones (depending on the type of phones).
However, extracting all that material in a way that does not harm people or the environment requires a huge amount of capital. Shan Poornam has invested RM72.6mil in its facilities, which include furnaces and air pollution controlling systems.
The company is also investing in another RM50mil worth of equipment to ensure that their recycling process will not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to add to the global warming problem.
Shan Poornam managing director Selvakumar Shanmugam says the company has an elaborate “tomb to the womb” process that deals with e-waste without causing any damage to workers or surroundings. By this, he means that the company uses sophisticated equipment to extract materials from “dead” electronic devices and, after several processes, return the materials to raw forms that can then be re-used by electronic devices manufacturers – hence tomb to womb. (See diagram below.)
Jason Yee, executive director of another e-waste recycling company, Meriahtek, says that most people are not seeing the bigger picture.
“The public expect something in return rather than doing it for a healthy society and environment. Proper waste management is vital in preserving the environment for future generations. Our actions today shape the future of Mother Earth,” he says.
Refurbishing company APR Electronic Services senior manager Danny Ng says that the public has to understand that the profit margins for a commercial refurbisher has dropped dramatically.
“Our profit margins have come down by almost 90% in the past 10 years. This is because the prices of laptops and PCs have fallen dramatically but we still have to invest in new machines every few years,” he says in explaining why consumers should not expect more than small token sums for e-waste.
One category of the improperly disposed of e-waste Wan Junaidi mentioned is handphones, a major concern when it comes to e-waste. The MCMC estimates that millions of mobile phones are lying around in homes or have been thrown into landfills.
The commission has been trying to get people to do the right thing with old phones for a while now; its “Old Phone, New Life” campaign was launched in August 2015 targeting at least a million phones in one year. However, to date, only 5,200 units have been sent in to be properly disposed of.
But MCMC’s Badaruzzaman is not giving up hope. He believes that the campaign is still working albeit slowly. Despite the name, the campaign is not limited to just smartphones – laptops, power banks and other portable electronic devices such as tablets are also accepted.
The commission partnered with Maxis, Digi, TM, Celcom and U Mobile to make available dedicated e-waste bins at 74 of the telcos’ outlets nationwide. For more information, go to mobileewaste.mcmc.gov.my.
If you live in Johor, Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, Pahang, Perlis or Putrajaya, it is now compulsory for you to segregate separate your rubbish into plastic, glass, paper and others. While there is no specific category for e-waste, it can go into the “others” category. However, to date 0.48% of segregated waste is e-waste, according to waste management company Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation.
The Department of Environment (DOE) initiated the e-waste Alam Alliance programme, involving 140 e-waste collection centres nationwide located at hypermarkets, electrical retail outlets like Senheng, NGO facilities and community centres.
But according to the department, public awareness is low because of a lack of education on the severity of the problem.
The DOE is still organising road shows, seminars and workshops to drum up support and encourages the public can find out more through www.doe.gov.my/household-ewaste.
Recycler Meriahtek has had an e-waste collection drive in Malacca since 2014 called Weee Go Green that allows people to drive through and drop off their e-waste at Aeon supermarket parking lot in Malacca.
Again, response was average. In 2015, the Weee Go Green campaign collected 7,870kg of e-waste, slightly more than the year before.
“We have our people stationed there, distributing leaflets and explaining it to the public,” says Yee.
Retailers Senheng and the All IT Hypermarket have started their own e-waste collection programme with modest results. The Electrical and Electronics Association of Malaysia has also been running an e-waste recovery programme in Kuala Lumpur since July that involves placing e-waste bins in shopping complexes like Publika and Low Yat Plaza.
Shan Poornam’s Selvakumar believes that shopping centres may be too far for the consumer to travel to get rid of their e-waste. Hence, Shan Poornam plans to set up 86 collection centres all over Malaysia by 2017 that are more conveniently placed.
“The collection centres will be set up in strategic places such as village security and community development committee areas – we want them nearer to the residents,” says Selvakumar.
Alternatively, you could give your old devices to charity.
If you live in the Klang Valley, you can drop them off at Sols Tech, the technology arm of humanitarian organisation Sols 24/7 Malaysia. (See the “Recycling For Charity” story, right.)
But whether you choose to put it in a recycle bin or donate it, the message is clear: Dispose of your e-waste properly.