JOHOR: Refrigerators of every size, model and age line the dusty streets of a town in Johor, Malaysia – discarded by those living in Singapore, a two-hour drive away.
Inside five of these old refrigerators lie a tracking device each, planted as part of Channel NewsAsia documentary The Trash Trail’s investigation into what happens to electronic waste discarded by Singaporean households (premiere Monday, Jan 30, at 7.30pm).
It turns out that in the town of Rengit, used fridges from Singapore are in hot demand.
Madam Julizah, who goes by one name and runs one of these businesses, said that she received five to six used refrigerators in a week.
“There are no forms. We buy them from an agent who produces an approval letter for us, before we bring (the refrigerators) in,” she said. “If we can fix them, we will fix them. If we cannot, we will dump them.”
For generations, families in Rengit have made a living out of fixing and selling second-hand household appliances that make their way across Malaysian borders, according to one of the sellers.
But while these businesses seem to be giving old household appliances a new lease of life, are they legitimate – or are they doing more harm than good?
WATCH: How we tracked the fridges (2:47)
US-based Basel Action Network (BAN), whose mission is to stop e-waste dumping, does not think so. Its founder Jim Puckett said that the facilities were not “environmentally sound” after he was shown photos of the second-hand household appliance shops in Rengit.
“They’re what we call the informal sector, and can create tremendous environmental problems, especially if the scale of what we’re talking about is significant,” said Mr Puckett.
“This is a problem of dumping, and it has to be dealt with immediately by the authorities of both countries.”
Many waste collectors in Singapore themselves do not safely extract toxic refrigerant gases, allowing these gases - such as Freon - to escape and potentially do harm to health and the environment. (Read the earlier article here.)
To investigate what happens to Singapore’s e-waste, The Trash Trail worked with BAN to install trackers on 30 old fridges. Various movers, who were unaware of the experiment, were then contacted to take the fridges away.
In most cases, the refrigerators were found to have been dismantled and stripped of recyclable materials before being sent to incinerators here in Singapore.
But five fridges were traced one week later, via GPS tracking, to the same place – Rengit in Johor.
Malaysia’s Department of Environment’s guidelines consider household appliances older than three years as e-waste, even if they can be repaired, and are not allowed to be imported into the country.
Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) told Trash Trail that only used appliances meant for re-use or repair can be exported, and not those meant for disposal.
The reality? When producers visited the shop where Madam Julizah sent her appliances to be repaired, the skeletal remnants of electrical parts and damaged appliances were found dumped outside.
The repair shop’s owner, Mr Asghar Khan, said: “We will repair where we can, and if we can’t, we send them to be scrapped.”
THE GAP IN E-WASTE RECYCLING
The NEA said it is currently conducting a study to develop options for an e-waste management system.
Meanwhile, people can donate their old refrigerators and other household appliances to the Heartland E-waste Recycling Programme, which was piloted in 2013 and is now in its second phase.
Even so, programme initiator Panasonic Asia-Pacific, which is one of the largest manufacturers of electrical appliances, believes that more can be done to promote e-waste recycling and form an industry for it, especially at the government level.
Panasonic’s spokesperson Low Beng Huat said: “I think building up an industry for home appliance recycling is something that a producer cannot be doing.”
When asked about the challenges faced in e-waste recycling, Mr Low said: “We really need to have a good recycler partner to help us recycle home appliances. But based on my understanding, at the moment, there isn’t a company who is willing to do this, or has the capability to do this in Singapore.”
The Trash Trail premieres on Monday, Jan 30, at 7.30pm (SG/HK) with two back-to-back episodes exposing the environmental truth behind discarded refrigerators and disposable cups.
The series is part of the CNA Signatures belt showcasing innovative programmes.