In 2016, Mohamed Tarek El-Fatary, also known as Mo, represented his startup at TEDxAmsterdam Innovation Competition. The startup, by the name of Masar Smart Energy, was focused on deploying solar energy to African villages.
The same day, he went on to win the top award in the competition. He recalled being asked:
“Can you guarantee that these villages who are going to use your system are going to have a proper e-waste recycling system at the end of the system’s life?”
When Mo answered no, he got the response: “Then, you are solving a 25-year problem by creating a 250-year problem when your system becomes e-waste and contaminates the land and water that these villagers need to survive on.”
With that, he realised the urgency of the e-waste problem. Mo internalised this issue until he married Nahed Bedir Eletribi, a social entrepreneur with her own set of impressive accolades such as being the recipient of various innovation awards.
As the couple began to brainstorm solutions for the problem of e-waste, the news of e-waste originally destined for China making its way into Malaysia broke sometime in 2018.
So, the founders did what they had to do: they got on a plane and flew to Malaysia to help solve the problem.
Reaching Malaysian soil
During Mo and Nahed’s visit, they found themselves in Low Yat Plaza, a shopping centre in KL specialising in electronics.
There, they spotted a phone dealer pushing a glass cabinet full of dusty Nokia mobile phone parts. Naturally, the couple asked him where he was taking the parts.
The dealer told them that he was cleaning his shop’s storage and was about to dump the devices. Upon hearing that, Mo asked him to hold onto the batch for another day. Meanwhile, he started looking for a recycling facility that deals with mobile phones.
According to Mo, he ended up purchasing the entire batch of phone parts for US$1,000. He took a Grab to the recycling facility he found in Klang, and actually ended up making US$2,000.
“That’s when we understood that waste generators exist, and recycling facilities exist, but there is a missing link between them,” Mo and Nahed said. “We realised that if we create this missing link, we can unlock tremendous environmental, social, and economic value.”
With this, the couple decided to move to Malaysia and established ERTH, an authorised e-waste collection centre.
Making Mother Earth proud
Launched in early 2019, ERTH stands for Electronic Recycling Through Heroes. But obviously, it resembles the word “earth” as well.
The co-founders established ERTH by acquiring a pre-existing Malaysian technology company by the name of Blue Bee Technologies. They then pivoted the company to be a digital platform accelerating electronic recycling for households and businesses.
Any household or business can book a free pickup for their unwanted electronic wastes through ERTH’s website or its WhatsApp hotline (014-2211446).
The minimum requirement for pickups is simply one working device or three non-working devices from its list, which can be found on its website.
Upon receiving the pickup request, a driver (who the team calls a Hero) will contact the customer and arrange the pickup accordingly. The Hero then pays a cash reward according to ERTH’s standard pricing.
The pickup service is currently only in the Klang Valley, though ERTH’s B2B service is available across peninsular Malaysia.
After the electronics reach ERTH’s warehouse, the team categorises them from grade A to C. Grade A refers to reusable, Grade B for repairable, and Grade C for recyclable.
As a collection centre, ERTH doesn’t deal with the actual recycling of the parts. Instead, it hands over the devices to downstream channels, respective to the grade of the electronics.
“We believe that Malaysia can double its electronic recycling rate by 2030, from the current 27% to 52%,” the co-founders shared. “This would make Malaysia the top e-waste recycling nation of Southeast Asia.”
According to Mo and Nahed, the infrastructure is ready to support such a surge. The only missing component is customer awareness and willpower.
Although e-waste could use more awareness, ERTH believes Malaysians are more knowledgeable about the topic nowadays. As an example, a Maxis video featuring ERTH has over 1.4 million views on YouTube.
The collection centre has also garnered recognition from the Malaysian government. According to ERTH’s website, the Department of Environment recognised it as a top authorised collection centre in 2021.
The recognition has helped ERTH secure large multinational customers such as DHL, Volvo, Shell, DKSH, HongLeong, Maxis, and other names.
On top of this, ERTH has also received a Penjana SIM-Matching Grant as an accredited social enterprise. The team used the grant to boost the household cash rewards in early 2021.
The organisation also received a grant from MiGHT (Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology) that it used for researching technology systems needed to raise Malaysia’s recycling rate.
“Today, we already have the system up-and-running in partnership with Maxis, and [it] has improved our Hero network efficiency by 50%,” the co-founders shared.
While the government’s recognition helped boost ERTH’s reputation, it goes beyond governmental initiatives to solve the e-waste problem. After all, many governments around the world are unable to deal with the e-waste problem by themselves.
The couple said that this is because by the time e-waste reaches the municipal waste collection point, it has already been contaminated or destroyed. Thus, the value becomes low or negative.
Therefore, the solution is to intercept the devices from the consumers’ hands before they reach the waste stream. This is exactly what ERTH is doing.
With that said, the governments have an important role to play in raising awareness about the problem and supporting players like ERTH with solid policies that help solve the problem more effectively.
Looking toward the future
ERTH is currently in talks with several investors about expanding its services throughout Malaysia.
As Malaysia only represents 2% of the global e-waste market, the team also hopes to help other countries through a franchise model. Such a model will allow entrepreneurs elsewhere to establish independently-run ERTH operations while using existing systems.
“In the long term, within a few decades, we would like to accelerate the e-waste recycling rate such that the majority of e-waste in the world is properly recycled and no electronic devices end up exported/dumped to other countries or in landfills anywhere in the world,” the couple said.
While electronics have improved our lives, we must consider the impact it leaves on our environment and society.
The next time you find some unwanted electronics, try giving ERTH a call, and let the Heroes take it from there.
Featured Image Credit: ERTH