While not as glamorous as Marie Kondo’s guide to decluttering based on the “Does it spark joy?” mantra, the proper disposal of ewaste is a serious matter.
Ewaste or electronic waste is a term used for old or broken devices and appliances destined for disposal. As it turns out, most Malaysians don’t have a clue about how to properly deal with their old tech.
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“I’ve got a whole rat’s nest of cables just sitting in a box somewhere because I just don’t know what to do with them,” says 25-year-old Lee Xien Wen.
Graphics designer Venese Rengasamy shares a similar story: “My family home is full of old electronics like phones and vacuum cleaners that we don’t use anymore.
“I’m not sure if any of this stuff is still usable anymore.”
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The old electronics that people end up with aren’t always small items like cables and smartphones, but sometimes larger appliances like TVs and refrigerators.
“When we got a new TV because the old model stopped working, I tried to find places to recycle the old one, but it was really difficult,” says 30-year-old Loh Chi Fung, a Puchong resident.
Loh shares that there are barely any recycling centres close to home, and the nearest one demanded RM200 to dispose of an old TV.
According to Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry, the founder of the ewaste recycling service ERTH, the biggest obstacle is a lack of public awareness and a willingness to take action.
“We believe that a lack of awareness and willpower are the major challenges.
“Malaysia can double its recycling rate overnight with the existing infrastructure – it’s a matter of willpower and knowledge,” he claims.
Giving gadgets second life
Dr Saman Ilankoon, senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the Monash University School of Engineering, says the fraction of ewaste collected in Malaysia last year was commendable – about 2,459 tonnes – but was still significantly short of the overall ewaste generated, which stood at 364,000 tonnes.
“This suggests that we need concentrated efforts to make the public aware of ewaste management,” he says, adding that people are still sending their ewaste to informal channels that don’t have the facilities to properly dismantle electronics.
“If possible, consider reusing or recycling rather than discarding. Reuse is preferable and much more sustainable than recycling as it extends the lifetime of electrical and electronic equipment,” says Ilankoon.
This is a sentiment that Mohamed Tarek agrees with, as almost 50% of the personal IT devices that are picked up by ERTH are reusable.
“People can hand the devices to a younger member of the family, or donate them to the needy after erasing their personal data and resetting the device,” he says, adding that people can send their devices to ERTH to determine if they are reusable, repairable or recyclable.
Mohamed Tarek also recommends that households and businesses do not store their old devices for several years before handing them to a recycler, as by then the value would have dropped significantly.
ERTH, which pays for ewaste, has a free pickup service within the Klang Valley, with plans to expand to other areas. Those outside its service area can send their ewaste via post or check out its website at erth.app for more details.
Johnson Wong, from the Saujana Damansara branch of the Tzu Chi recycling centre, says the company inspects the ewaste it receives to recover items that are still usable or can be repaired.
“If the things that people bring in are still in good condition or need a simple fix like installing a new fuse, we’ll repair them and give the devices away as donations.
“The things that can’t be repaired are sold back to the manufacturers to be recycled for raw materials and we use the money for charity,” he says.
Most of the volunteers at Tzu Chi recycling centres are retirees, including Wong, who is 63 years old, and some who are in their late 80s.
The recycling centres are located in the Klang Valley, with a full list of drop-off points available on the Environment Department’s (DOE’s) ewaste website.
Another option for dealing with old electronics that are still working is to sell them off in second-hand markets.
If they are not functional, check out a community like KakiRepair, which encourages and teaches the public to repair their own devices.
Those seeking advice can post their questions on its Facebook page, which has over 50,000 followers, or visit www.kakirepair.com, its knowledge portal with more in-depth guides on various topics.
However, most of the ewaste initiatives are centred in and around the Klang Valley – according to Dr Tan Ching Seong, an associate professor with the Faculty of Engineering at Multimedia University (MMU), major initiatives are few and far between in other areas.
“The pandemic has had a serious impact on the progress of ewaste management, with community efforts stifled during the long movement control period (MCO) period.
“Malaysia suffered from lockdowns and quarantines, which made it very tough for the collection of recyclables, including ewaste,” he says.
Tan, who operates an ewaste social enterprise, iCycle, which was also affected by lockdowns, had to put many initiatives on hold due to Covid-19, the same as many non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Even with the pockets of collection centres opening up after restrictions were relaxed, Tan says he didn’t see much growth in ewaste collection.
Ilankoon believes that most people do not understand the significance of waste management, thinking that it’s the responsibility of others or the government.
“Discarded fluorescent lamps are also defined as ewaste, including light bulbs,” he says, adding that the mercury in the lamps is highly harmful to the environment.
Ilankoon cautions that if fluorescent lamps are dumped in landfills, they may break and pollute water and soil, eventually entering the human food chain.
Mohamed Tarek feels the same, saying that some devices release toxic particles and chemicals as they degrade, which are harmful when inhaled.
Tan feels that there needs to be formal guidelines from DOE in handling consumer ewaste.
“In terms of recycling ewaste, we do have proper facilities which are licensed and fully capable of doing the job,” explains Tan, adding this is the case only for ewaste management at the industrial level.
On the consumer side, little is done to ensure that ewaste is properly directed to these facilities instead of landfills, he claims.
Tan says collecting and dumping both normal waste and ewaste into landfills is not solving the problem, adding, “Why should we be paying money to create a disaster for our future generations?”
Ilankoon claims that in developing countries like Malaysia, recycling operations for ewaste are only able to extract a few metals such as gold, copper, silver and platinum, but a device like the mobile phone contains more than 40 types of metals.
“In Europe, the state-of-the-art ewaste recycling operations are able to extract more than 30 metals, including minor ones.
“However, these operations are capital-intensive and not viable in developing countries,” he clarifies.
Going full circle
Mohamed Tarek shares that countries with a recycling rate of over 40% achieved it with an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a waste management policy that holds manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products.
“In my opinion, having a truly circular economy in place is something that every nation should aspire to, which would not only reduce waste, but also reduce the amount of natural resources being used.
“Malaysia is currently attempting to create a comprehensive framework for the circular economy, which is a step in the right direction towards circularity,” he says.
Tans says: “EPR would be a good move if there was enforcement on a policy level to make sure that all producers of electronic devices and appliances collect their devices at the end of their products’ lifespan for proper disposal and recycling.
“This would be the most effective way possible to deal with the excess of ewaste in the country, but at the moment, there is nothing in place to make sure this happens.”
Ilankoon concurs, explaining that the biggest challenge in implementing EPR is in putting the legislative framework in place.
“Several government bodies have to cooperate in implementing the characteristics of the EPR scheme. This takes some time and resources.
“Additionally, the general public needs to be informed about the EPR scheme, especially the recycling fees to be charged and the return of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment to the distributors,” he explains.
Tan added that the beauty of EPR is that it’s a win-win situation for all parties involved – the government won’t be burdened with the process of ewaste disposal, manufacturers get to reduce their material costs, and consumers are able to easily offload their old devices and appliances.
He says that Malaysia could learn from other countries that have been successful in implementing EPR schemes, such as Europe, Japan, and even Singapore.
On the topic of awareness, Mohamed Tarek emphasises that the government should be taking the wheel when it comes to spreading awareness about ewaste initiatives.
“The fact of the matter is, the role of actively promoting ewaste awareness should not fall on recyclers like us who don’t have the funds to take up huge billboard advertising,” he says, adding that subsidies should also be given to those running ewaste recycling programmes and collection centres.
However, the experts feel this should not make people sit idly by and wait for a top-down solution to ewaste issues, but instead educate themselves on being better consumers.
They say education plays a large role, especially when it comes to being more aware of the proper disposal methods currently available in Malaysia.
Tzu Chi’s Wong believes that it’s important to start education at an early age, as children, who are using gadgets at an earlier age, need to know about managing ewaste.
“We’ve been working with nearby schools to organise field trips for kids to visit our recycling centres so they can learn about ewaste management and the impact it has on the environment when not disposed of properly,” he says.
Ilankoon, however, wants to go even further in the field of education.
“To make ewaste management a ‘habit’ of the general public, introduce waste management as a curriculum at the school level.
“Our future generations will be better aware of the adverse impacts of ewaste and of the difficulty of acquiring the resources to make our everyday consumer electronic items,” he says.