By Peter Bateman, Youth Co:Lab
A recycling revolution is underway in Malaysia, starting with a team of young entrepreneurs asking some very simple questions. What happens to the things we throw out? Why are climate catastrophes getting worse? How can we do something about it?
Hanum Ruzaini is a curious person, she asked questions for a living as a former chain of custody auditor and now she’s applying that same knowledge and experience to social entrepreneurship.
Along with friends and colleagues Veloo Thevar and Erica Akmar Annuar, Hanum has launched Projek Kita.R, a social enterprise that’s developing a comprehensive local recycling ecosystem. The team is creating recycling solutions for materials that, despite being recyclable, have previously ended up in landfills.
Growing up, Hanum watched her city of Kuala Lumpur experience the effects of climate change more frequently, with monsoon season battering the city, causing now annual flooding events.
‘In Malaysia, there is no way we are going to escape this climate change,’ she said.
‘Although we have improved the drainage, be it the big metropolis Kuala Lumpur or city like Seremban and Melaka, the floods are getting worse. When I was a kid, we would get a massive flash flood once every five years. Now it is happening every year or multiple times a year.
‘I realise that landfill is one of the main contributors to greenhouse gases and that’s contributing to climate change. And lots of plastics and other debris we throw out ends up clogging the drain, and we end up with flash floods.’
Hanum and her friends wanted to know why the landfills were overflowing, and the drains were clogged.
‘I thought, that’s my newspaper, that’s my aluminium can, but I want to know where do they go, are they going to be a newspaper again, or are they going to be dumped or incinerated,’ said Hanum.
So the team took their questions to the government agencies responsible for waste management and the private sector manufacturers responsible for creating the waste.
‘We interviewed the government agency that is responsible to collect rubbish, and then we checked with them what kind of rubbish is being collected but not being recycled,’ said Hanum.
‘All this while I thought if there’s a recycle bin, for sure these items are going to be recycled but no, only those items that have a dedicated recycle solution are going to be recycled.’
Projek Kita.r soon realised that much of what was recyclable was ending up in landfills simply because the infrastructure to recycle it hadn’t been established.
‘If we don’t have it, let’s make it. Nobody is recycling? Ok, we are going to pick up this task. We see it as an opportunity. We don’t see it as a roadblock. This is a way to show people that waste is a resource, that waste can provide for the community,’ said Hanum.
When the Projek Kita.r team joined Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, in 2020, they had yet to figure out exactly what to do with the answers to their questions.
‘When we arrived at Youth Co:Lab, it was actually just a floating idea. We had only started to interview the government at that time, we hadn’t started to interview the private sector, and we were experimenting with one [recyclable] material. Now we are working on recycling Tetra Pak’s beverage cartons, food-grade glass containers, glassware and ceramic, and used cooking oil, items that no longer need to end up in landfill.’ said Hanum.
‘The learnings and the lessons from Youth Co:Lab allowed us to move on to other kinds of waste.
‘We are part of the [Youth Co:Lab] Springboard program from 2020/2021. It’s great I met a few other startups that work around waste based in Bangladesh and based in India and throughout Asia. We just kind of like exchange ideas, and it’s great to see what’s happening in other countries by other youth entrepreneurs.’
For Hanum and the team, there is a real urgency for their recycling solutions.
‘It’s no longer the time to make plans. We don’t want a projection for 5-10 years from now. It must be at this moment, and now, if not, what is going to happen in the future will be irreversible,’ said Hanum.
Projek Kita.r is no longer looking at how to close the loops on recycling but at the opportunity beyond this waste.
Having started supplying glass and ceramic waste to local artisans, the team wants to move into larger-scale processing to supply glass sand to other industries and create a more circular economy for Malaysia.
Since its inception, Projek Kita.R has diverted almost 90kg of glass and ceramic waste in Negeri Sembilan.
‘We have connected the four recyclable material vendors in Seremban town with used beverage carton recycling factory, and now we have established a network of used cooking oil collectors in Negeri Sembilan for door to door collections in 12 residential areas with about 200 household participants.’
Driving all of Projek Kita.R success is curiosity, and Hanum’s message to all youth who want to make a difference to the planet and their community is to keep asking questions.
‘Take action, fall in love with the problem so you can find many solutions. If you fall in love with the solution, you might not get anywhere, but if you fall in love with the problem, your curiosity will come up with many solutions,’ said Hanum.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.