The saying “it takes a village” can also be applied to improving e-waste recycling efforts in Malaysia, as a strategic community approach is needed to properly discard electrical items.
“Realistically, it would be difficult for just one person within a community like a housing area or in a condo building to be able to dispose of e-waste successfully,” said Dr Tan Ching Seong, an associate professor at the Faculty of Engineering in Multimedia University.
Community effort seems to be the key to the success of a nationwide e-waste collection initiative announced by Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, the Minister of Environment and Water, during an event in Kelantan earlier this month.
Tuan Ibrahim said his ministry (KASA) has set every last Saturday of the month as a national e-waste collection day starting next January.
According to a local report, Tuan Ibrahim hopes the initiative will raise public awareness to dispose of e-waste in a responsible manner.
“The initiative, which will begin in January 2021, aims to ensure that e-waste can be collected and recycled with safer and more systematic measures,” he said in the report.
A press statement issued on Nov 2 by the Department of Environment (DOE) on the initiative stated that members of the public are encouraged to organise their own e-waste collection activities within the community. Information about collection centres in each state can be found on the DOE’s Household E-waste website.
The DOE has also provided a separate document with a list of e-waste collection centres operated by local authorities, Alam Flora and SWM Environment on the KASA ministry portal.
Dr Saman Ilankoon, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering with the School of Engineering at Monash University Malaysia, welcomes the initiative.
As a researcher conducting studies on e-waste management and value recovery operations, he noted that such initiatives are crucial first steps towards improving the measures of overall e-waste management.
“These programmes also provide awareness to the general public on the importance of e-waste management, including proper channels to dispose of their household e-waste as some people may not be aware of this aspect,” he said.
A critical goal that Ilankoon would like to see achieved through the initiative is for it to properly indicate the amount of household e-waste collected in each state.
“As the initiative goes on and we’re able to gather more e-waste, that could be a measure of the awareness on e-waste disposal among the general public in Malaysia. Based on the collection data, we could identify the type of e-waste that people dispose of and the types of items that they would tend to keep at home,” he said, adding that the latter would provide information for modified collection initiatives in the future.
Likewise, Tan believes the initiative should also include sustainable measures that could prevent more e-waste from being dumped into landfills, such as with a separate collection system from general waste.
“If the initiative doesn’t prevent the e-waste from ending up in landfills, then we’re just doing more damage to the environment,” he said.
Ilankoon agreed, saying e-waste collection from both households and industries is only one side of the process. There should be an equal emphasis on “sustainable value recovery operations”, starting with deciding whether e-waste should be recycled or reused.
“Reuse of electrical and electronic equipment is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than recycling operations and we must promote reuse especially in developing countries.
“If the items are not reusable, then we can perform recycling operations to extract maximum value components,” he said.
Ideally, recycling operations should also not end up contributing to more damage in the environment. He explained that in Europe for example, about 40 types of metal can be extracted from e-waste while profit-oriented businesses in developing countries only target a few metals, namely gold, copper, silver and platinum.
“In addition, e-waste recycling operations in developing countries are typically known as hydrometallurgical operations where acids and aqueous solutions react with metals in e-waste, which produce liquid and solid waste streams.”
If the waste from recycling operations is not discarded properly and is allowed to go into water streams or soil, then Ilankoon said it is just causing more pollution.
“A successful e-waste management system should cover these key aspects, namely efficient e-waste collection, reuse easily repairable electrical and electronic items, carry out value recovery operations to recover many metals rather than only the high value metals, and manage the waste by-products including the plastic fraction in e-waste items,” he elaborated.
The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 report classifies e-waste into six categories, namely temperature exchange equipment (air conditioners/refrigerators), screens and monitors (television/tablets), lamps (LED/fluorescent), large equipment (washing machines/printers), small equipment (microwaves/toasters) and small IT or telecommunication equipment (mobile phones/routers).
As some forms of e-waste may contain toxic materials such as mercury and cadmium that are hazardous to health, DOE on its website on Household E-waste strongly discourages people from dumping e-waste irresponsibly.
Based on his experience running a social enterprise focusing on waste management, Tan said most Malaysians expect to be financially compensated when putting up e-waste for recycling.
“I hope that more people can understand that recycling should not be about making money but rather that it’s an important step to preserve the environment for generations to come,” he said.
Ilankoon agreed about the perception of value that people put on e-waste: “They think it’s still valuable compared to the initial price they paid and expect monetary returns.”
He added that while people are happy to use a smartphone, most are unaware that it contains at least 75 base metals that are sometimes harvested through environmentally-damaging mining operations.
“In addition, we are eager to buy fluorescent lamps, including compact light bulbs, though some people do not know it contains harmful mercury that could cause severe environmental concerns if discarded lamps are not properly disposed of.”
Ilankoon explained that mercury from discarded lamps in landfills could pollute the soil and surrounding water resources.
“If consumers really understand these potential environmental impacts, I believe, they could think about it deeply and identify the correct channels to dispose of their household e-waste.”
He also said that people have data security concerns which makes them hold on to e-waste, such as faulty hard drives containing items like personal photos.
Both Tan and Ilankoon hope that more people would engage the service of a licensed collector instead of an informal collector. However, most choose the latter due to cost-cutting measures.
Ilankoon believes informal waste collectors can play a bigger role in helping to manage e-waste.
“The problem is this sector is not regulated and we do not know whether these operations are sustainable,” he said, adding that he’s also unsure if the collected e-waste ends up being disposed of responsibly.
Ilankoon said informal collectors can be a part of the mainstream of waste collection by registering them to a system that can also provide them with the necessary support and guidance.
“We would then alleviate the adverse effects caused by informal collectors and possibly employ their services to establish a more sustainable waste collection process. I believe this should be the right way to go forward in developing countries,” he added.
Tan noted that during the movement control order from March till May in Malaysia, e-waste collection was not deemed an “essential service”, therefore his social enterprise was not allowed to gather waste from communities that had engaged its services.
“We received a number of complaints from members of the community and we appealed to the authorities to allow us to resume collection activities. However, we learned that the e-waste was just put together with general waste,” he said.
He believes that recycling activities such as e-waste collection should be categorised as an essential service during a movement control order.
“Now, we have heard that the government may introduce stricter measures again and we hope they will allow collectors to continue the recycling activities. Otherwise, we have to pause again.”
As part of a safety measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Tan said his collectors are also equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE).
Ilankoon said due to unprecedented times, waste collection methodologies and strategies have to adapt to the new normal, and the safety of all those involved in waste management campaigns need to be protected.
He said the upcoming e-waste initiative in 2021 should include the use of technology for data collection and tracking.
“During the pandemic, technology-based household e-waste collection such as a mobile app could be a potential method since it can track if anyone has participated in the initiative. The information could then be useful for health authorities to perform contact tracing for Covid-19,” he said.
Ilankoon’s research project on e-waste management includes the development of a Smart E-waste Collection box for household e-waste. The project is a collaborative effort with fellow Monash University lecturer Dr Chun Yong Chong, along with students Kai Dean Yang and Harnyi Kang.
He explained that the two collection boxes – currently available in Sunway University and Monash University in Subang Jaya, Selangor – have sensors to collect data that are then processed and presented to users via a mobile app.
“There are two sides of this mobile app system, namely the user’s side and data processing on the e-waste collector’s side. Users can locate nearby e-waste collection boxes based on their GPS location using the app. The attached sensors measure the e-waste level in a box as a function of time. Once the box is nearly full, say to 90%, it will prompt collectors via email or SMS.”
Ilankoon said the app also has a points system which rewards users for keeping track of their e-waste disposal, adding that the app helps to address the need to keep both users and collectors equally informed about e-waste management.
“I feel that we should ensure enough resources in terms of facilities, technology, and encouragement for people to dispose of their household e-waste sustainably, otherwise it would be difficult to address this issue in the future.”
Tan said over the years, it has been encouraging to see more people develop awareness for proper e-waste disposal but that there was still work to be done.
“I would like to see more changes in terms of regulation and stricter enforcement from the authorities. We also need consistent public engagement efforts. Don’t stop at just one ‘gotong royong’ activity,” he said.
Ilankoon concurred, saying the authorities should make e-waste management a “habit” among the general public by introducing waste management as a curriculum at the school level. He added that this could be achieved as a partnership between the DOE and the Ministry of Education, for example.
“With this, our future generations will have a better awareness on the adverse impacts of e-waste and how difficult (it is) to find the resources to make our day-to-day consumer electronic items,” he explained.