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e-Waste: A Silent Killer of Our Generation

Read our introduction on e-Waste here.

Read the first part of our conversation with ERTH here.

e-Waste is a growing pain in today’s world. We enjoy the convenience of electronic devices, but are we managing them when their use life is due? 

Our journalists at Charisma Movement made a visit to Electronic Recycling Through Heroes (ERTH)’s warehouse in Cyberjaya to meet its founder, Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry, for a conversation on the importance of managing e-Waste the right way, and how ERTH plays a part in pushing for the environmental agenda. 

CM: For most of us, our lives are highly dependent on electronic devices, much more than our parents and grandparents when they were growing up. The rate of e-Waste production only increases, but our rate of e-Waste recycling does not quite keep up. What do you think contributes to this problem?   

Tarek: For the past five years, the problem in Malaysia is the lack of infrastructure. If you have a lot of e-Waste, say one tonne, you can easily find processors that would come and take the e-Waste from you. But for typical households, they most likely only have a few small items, so no processor would be willing to come and collect these items from them. These households would turn to informal collectors like the neighbourhood Karang Guni collectors, who in turn pass the materials to illegal processors. This might lead to unregulated management of the e-Waste and risk harming the environment, and a lot of important data that could help the government measure the country’s performance in e-Waste management  gets unrecorded along the way too. 

CM: How does ERTH make a difference in this climate?

Tarek: Our organisation enlists freelancers so that people (the public) who would want to recycle their e-Waste can book a pickup service. We call these freelancing drivers our Heroes. When a potential customer requests for a pickup, our system will notify Heroes to collect the items and deliver them to our warehouse. In return, we pay our Heroes and the clients based on the amount of e-Waste they contributed. This is a form of paid activism. 

However, our coverage is not nationwide yet. We have only established this system in Klang Valley, Penang and Johor so far. We do get requests from other areas, but instead of letting them wait for months or years before ERTH could establish a branch in their cities, we started a partnership with Pos Malaysia. Since Jan 2024, more than 1,000 post offices across the peninsula have become drop-off points for e-Waste. Our clients beyond our Heroes’ coverage areas only have to drop their materials at their local post offices, and they will be given a prepaid delivery label for postage purposes. ERTH will pay the same rates of cash rewards as if the e-Waste were collected from their homes. 

Sadly, Malaysia is still stuck at approximately 30% of recycling rate at the moment. The problem goes back to free will. Do people want to do it? Are people sufficiently aware of the available infrastructure?

CM: Perhaps people are still more familiar with informal collection channels like their neighbourhood Karang Guni collectors, and they do not see the difference between that system and ERTH’s? 

Tarek: Yes, familiarity with the existing portals is one thing. This is especially if the informal collectors pay a higher price than formal collectors. If informal collectors pay you RM15 while we can only pay you RM10, it sure sounds more attractive, but think about the likelihood of them reselling your old desktop to the local scrapyard or any unregulated bulk processors with no right equipment to process the e-Waste. At a regulated, licensed factory, they might have a proper machine worth USD10,000 to strip plastic off copper wires before melting them to recycle. An informal factory certainly would not have such an advanced and expensive machine at their site, and they would turn to burning the plastic which releases poisonous gas that harms your health and the environment. So you getting an extra RM5 is at the cost of your children breathing in polluted air from burned plastic, is it worth it?

Desktop computers are a different story. Informal processors might not burn them but still they need to break them down, yet, not every part has resale value, especially the plastic components. Do note that only licensed processors can send their materials to landfills to be managed properly, so when their stock of worthless plastic pieces becomes full, they would turn to dumping them in isolated areas. 

Last December, another NGO, C4, alerted us that illegal processors have learned to shred plastic into minute sizes before mixing them with dirt and landscaping them in hidden areas like the forests. This avoids attention from law enforcers, causing the reported data on environmental contamination to not fairly reflect the truth.

CM: Why is there a difference between the cash rewards offered by formal and informal collectors? 

Tarek: On a fair grounds, the good guy should be able to compete in commercial terms with the bad guys. However, in realistic terms, the good guys incur costs to comply with the law, to invest in machinery, to de-pollute the residual wastes and to compensate labour fairly. Formal collectors are regulated by the authorities, who would make sure all standard operating procedures are executed the legal way. ERTH only delivers to licensed processors who face high costs themselves, so as collectors who do not get compensated competitively, it is a challenge for us to reward our clients attractively too.

For Malaysia now, from policy-making and law enforcement perspectives, there seem to be two obvious options to me. The government has to either come down with strict penalties on the illegal processors, or, they can create a subsidy scheme that reimburses the legal processors on some costs, so that the entire formal e-Waste collection chain can pay consumers at competitive rates. 

CM: Why is there no tighter enforcement from the government on informal collectors then? If we remove them from the chain, the public only have licensed collectors and processors to go to.

Tarek: The government has to cater to other aspects and considerations when making policies. They might think that things will be worse if informal collectors don't collect e-Waste too. Unregulated companies might do the job with higher environmental risks, but at least they are still getting the job done. Imagine waste materials piling up and no one would manage or process them. From the social end, their workers might go jobless and resort to crimes too. 

CM: It sounds like it still goes back to the people’s own good will of liaising with formal collectors and processors then. However, people often ignore issues which do not look apparent to them, only to realise later that their lack of early awareness is a mistake. Do you think Malaysians have the habit of passing problems to the next generation? 

Tarek: Handing our problems to the next generations is not always effective or wise. For example, over the past years, our government has raised the budget for flood mitigation drastically to address the worsening flood conditions. If measures were taken some 10 years ago when the issue first appeared, flood mitigation could have been maintained at a smaller budget. 

At the end of the day, when the forests get polluted or when toxic heavy metals are detected in water sources, and then only the government decides to start fixing such problems, who will be paying for it? It’s the taxpayers! So you get RM5 extra right now from selling your e-Waste to illegal collectors, but eventually when you are affected by the environmental consequences, you are still the one losing out as the government has to collect more tax, shift allocation of tax revenue from other sectors or cut down on certain subsidies. Soon enough, the bill of all the environmental damage will simply come and slap us all in the face.

CM: Just one more question here- we’re curious why e-Waste is more of a concern now but not 10 or 20 years ago. There could be a correlation between this phenomenon and phone manufacturers’ agenda in designing phone batteries to deteriorate quickly. Is it true?

Tarek: Yes, it is true. This is better known as the planned obsolescence conspiracy. But just think about it- We are now at iPhone 15, right? 10 years ago, we were just at iPhone 6. Imagine if Apple made iPhones so durable, with all the best software support that you never have to change phones, how can it grow into the trillion dollar company it is now? Modern phone manufacturers bet on consumers’ behaviour of biases towards novelty, especially shown in their desires to change phones every year or two for the latest softwares. 

However, I think the European Union will soon introduce legislation to force manufacturers to provide hardware and software support for up to 10 years for each device. This increases the number of years products can be used for, even if it means it is through the hands of several users. This still provides consumers with the novelty of a device change, but a portion of them could opt for fit second-hand devices that are more affordable than only relying on brand new devices. Anticipating the change in the business landscape, we see now companies are diversifying their products to increase revenue streams, like smart watches, mixed-reality headsets, smart speakers and even cars which are all yet to fall under similar regulatory requirements. 

CM: Interesting! Thank you for the really insightful session, Tarek. We do hope that our readers can reflect about the topic and perhaps share with their friends and family members the importance of e-Waste management and the hard work ERTH is driving. Let’s spread the words and play our part, for all of us have a role to fulfil in conserving the Earth.


Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement.

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