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How ERTH Becomes the Largest e-Waste Collector in Malaysia

Read our introduction on e-Waste here.

Electronic Recycling Through Heroes (ERTH) offers e-Waste collection service from your preferred location (home or office) and recycles all collected materials at a licensed processor which ensures that proper SOPs are adopted in managing the e-Waste, from the technical end to the labour end. First established in 2019, ERTH is now the largest e-Waste collector in Malaysia and it plays a huge role in conserving the environment.

The journalists at Charisma Movement were intrigued by ERTH’s work, especially the gap it fills in Malaysia’s waste management industry and how it has managed to gain consumers’ confidence leading to a dominant market share within only a few years’ time. Thus, we made a trip to ERTH’s warehouse in Cyberjaya for a visit, and sat down with one of ERTH’s key founders, Mohamed Tarek El-Fatatry, for a conversation on ERTH’s founding story and the e-Waste management scene in Malaysia. 

CM: Tell us how the idea of ERTH come about.

Tarek: Back when I was living in Europe, I was running a solar energy company building solar electric systems in Africa. We created fabricated shipping containers with solar panels and batteries, which charge from the sun and provide electricity as well as Wifi to the nearby villages. The idea received seed funding to create a prototype and I had a projection plan of deploying 10,000 systems in 10,000 African villages. However, our investors pointed out that while we might solve 25 years of electric supply issues, we also create 250 years of e-Waste problems. On top of that, we would even face enormous costs to visit all these locations. 

A year later, in the summer of 2015, I saw an article on National Geographic with a picture of Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s then Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), holding physical CDs from an open container. It was news about plastic wastes being sent to Malaysia by foreign countries. I realised the problem that I would like to solve was happening in Malaysia. 

So, I flew to KL with my co-founder, who is my wife. I started asking on the streets where to dispose of  e-Waste, and people pointed us to Lowyat Plaza. We found a phone dealer with 20 years of experience in the business. He showed us four full cabinets of broken phones and unrepairable components he had accumulated over the years. He couldn’t find anyone willing to dispose of the phone parts properly and still compensate him for the value the materials were worth. I then found a list of 60 existing legal processors in Malaysia on the Jabatan Alam Sekitar website, called them one by one to check the compensation price they offered. I offered the phone dealer half of the best deal I was offered by the factories, took the materials and dropped them off at the factory. There! The bridge between consumers hoping to recycle their e-Waste and legal processors is exactly what Malaysia needed. So ERTH was born to cater for that. 

CM: One realisation led to another, which shows we should always think, reflect and explore ideation outside of the box! However, ideation is one thing, execution is another. It must have been a challenge to set up the ERTH infrastructure. Tell us about it.

Tarek: At ERTH, we recruit Heroes to collect e-Waste from our clients’ houses. When we started back in January 2019, I was the only Hero and I completed more than 2000 collections by myself. That year of experience taught me on-the-ground challenges related to facilitating e-Waste collection, such as how to optimise collection routes, what the best collection methods are and what vehicle works the best. 

The following year, we went into the Covid-19 Pandemic with an uncertain future, having not built sufficient cash reserves to sustain ourselves for long. Luckily in May 2020, waste management was recognised by the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry (MITI) as an essential sector to be allowed to operate during the pandemic, so we could run our business again. Many smaller waste management companies had either downsized or shut down during the first Movement Control Order (MCO), leading to customers having to find alternative service providers to fulfil their waste management needs. Our phones started ringing and we had the busiest time. 

By the end of 2021, we got our first investor from Singapore, and today, we have more than 100 Heroes collecting e-Wastes for us.

CM: So ERTH collects e-Waste, and passes them to licensed processors. However, we are sure you don’t get the right materials 100% of the time. Let’s delve a bit deeper into ERTH’s operation model and how you process received materials internally.

Tarek: There are actually three parts in our model. Firstly, collecting orders and managing the collection; secondly, sorting and grading the e-Wastes as either recyclable, reusable and repairable, and passing them to the right parties for further processing; and thirdly, selling reusable or repaired items on our e-commerce platform. 

Our e-commerce wing does help mine every bit of value still present in reusable items, even when it does not make us the biggest profit sometimes. In the past, we have received perfectly working computers disposed of by banks as they were no longer compatible with their softwares or were out of warranty. One gentleman walked in here one day hoping to get second-hand computers for his four children after failing to find suitable ones within his budget at Lowyat Plaza. That same day, we made sure he walked out of our store with four units within his budget to provide for his children. 

We once also received a call from a public school in Kepong stating that their computer labs were broken. The relevant authorities were not responsive to their requests to recover the broken facilities, and students suffered from cancellation of classes meant for training their digital skills. The following morning, our branch manager went to the school with 24 units of second-hand computers, fixed the labs for free, and they have since been well running for six months. 

This shows how something someone threw away, instead of collecting dust in the storage or being exchanged for a few bucks from informal collectors, is now playing a part in children’s education.

CM: That is really inspiring! Is it tough to get a licence to operate as an e-Waste collector?

Tarek: We didn’t have a licence back in 2019, but instead of giving the materials to illegal processors, we passed them to legal ones. We were doing the right thing even before we were obligated to do so. At the end of 2020, Jabatan Alam Sekitar called us to Putrajaya for a meeting where we were asked about our job scope and operation process in detail. At the time, only processors, which are the factories with crushers, were legally allowed to collect e-Wastes. We are not processors, we are just a bridge that fills the logistical gaps between consumers and processors. However, we fit the ideal profile of what they envisioned to introduce, which is authorised collectors. 

At the beginning of 2021, we were one of the five companies that fit that profile. Today, there are 122 eligible companies. We were part of the pioneers of this ecosystem today, and in fact, in our first year, we received an award for being the largest authorised collector in the country. Till today, we still are the largest. The regulators looked at something unregulated, did their research on us, gave us the official rubber stamp to allow us to ‘legally’ conduct our work and help us expand our services. In this case, the government did a very good job. 

CM: With great power comes great responsibility. As the Government gave you the rubber stamp, do they set certain requirements and expectations too?

Tarek: Yes, we do get audited every three months to ensure everything we collect ends up with a licensed processor. This helps them collect data to monitor how well our country is performing in terms of e-Waste management, so that we can properly measure and track our aggregate performance as a country.

CM: How can we push for more private companies or corporates to play a part in enhancing e-Waste management?

Tarek: 2023 saw lots of improvement on this. Bursa Malaysia introduced a new Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting requirement where every public company in Malaysia must report the amount of total waste they generate and divert from landfill. Last year, Maxis reached out to us to do a staff campaign for them. We catered to their requests and gave a comprehensive report on all the items collected. We managed to collect 20 tonnes of e-waste from 100 staff, and this was included in their Bursa filing as an ESG effort. In fact, this achievement won an award at the International Telecommunication Conference in South Korea. In 2024, Maxis tripled the target to 60 tonnes. Not only they facilitate staff to recycle, they also send SMS to their regular customers, encouraging them to do so. We are optimistic with how the numbers are growing! Some companies allow us to put our e-waste collection box at their premises too, and it’s making a collective difference.

CM: Moving forward, how do you think AI play a part in your operation model, and the e-Waste management scene at large?

Tarek: It would be useful to have AI on price discovery for second-hand items. For example, using only the device code and spec details of an electronic device, AI can determine the average current market price of a used device. Secondly, we could also use AI for grading, perhaps a photographic system could help us capture every item that we receive at the warehouse for enhanced audit purposes, and it could help us auto-populate our data with all the specs of the device. It’s faster than doing these tasks manually. 

When I was in China in 2019, I saw that waste-sorting AI was embedded in the AliPay app where items scanned using the phone cameras can detect which colour of recycling bin they should be placed in. This helps customers make the right waste disposal decisions. I tried the system on my laptop, and instead of telling me which recycling bin to use, they gave me a button with a text that says, ‘Press here for pick up’. That was 2019, and they were already that advanced. This could be our future at large. 

CM: That’s some incredible vision there. Let’s have a break, and dive deep into why e-Waste management is no joking matter.

Tarek: Yeah, let’s do!

Read the second part of our conversation here.

If you are interested in recycling your used electronic devices with ERTH, join them as a Heroes or learn more about their work, head to their website via this link here.


Euan Thum, Journalist, Charisma Movement.

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