With the launch of Singapore's national e-waste management scheme on July 1, we visited a recycling plant to find out what happens to e-waste after we throw them in recycling bins.
Located in Tuas, EWR2 is one of eight recyclers licensed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to handle large household appliances.
According to a NEA representative, approximately 5,000 kilograms of e-waste has been collected from the ALBA recycling bins since the soft launch on June 4.
ALBA is the Producer Responsibility Scheme Operator appointed by NEA, which collects e-waste and distributes them to facilities like EWR2.
Armed with ear buds and headphones so we could still hear each other above the noise of the loud crushing and sorting machines, the staff gave us a quick tour of its numerous recycling plants.
EWR2 has the capacity to "recycle 13,000 tonnes of large household appliances and ICT equipment combined per year," shared Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, Amy Khor, who attended the site visit on July 13.
"This is actually equivalent to about the average weight of about 115,000 refrigerators," she added.
Recycling cables, computers and hard drives
The facility's various machines serve a range of functions.
Throw in a few hard drives, and the crusher separates components using heat and friction, completely destroying the stored data in an instant.
Same goes for the cable recycling plant, which sorts into bins for plastic and metal in a few seconds.
The smallest section of the facility? The dismantling work bench for ICT equipment.
This is where components of desktops, laptops, and phones are being taken apart.
As some of the tasks at the facility are highly routine jobs, which can be suitable for persons with special needs, EWR2 Director Yap Shih Chia says that the company is looking at hiring interns from the special needs schools.
Harvesting precious metals
The facility also houses a precious metal laboratory that only allows access via a biometric scan.
Next to the lab is a chemical processing plant, which uses cyanide acid to leach precious metal such as gold, silver and palladium.
The fully automated process is done by electronic arms, and the precious metals are picked up with a filter.
The acid is then treated and reused in the process, while wastewater produced in the process is treated by their in-house wastewater treatment plant.
Due to the hazardous nature of these materials, the facility needs to abide by strict requirements of the NEA and PUB.
The metal is brought to the miniature lab, where the purity and quality of the metal is determined, to assess the value of what has been recovered.
How is a fridge recycled?
In the two-storey facility, and the ground floor is dedicated to a large household appliance recycling plant.
According to EWR2 Managing Director Jonson Lai, since becoming fully operational in March, the facility has processed 500 tonnes of large household appliances, equivalent to about 5,000 fridges.
The hazardous refrigerants gas is first removed before its components are taken apart.
The fridge motor is removed, and mechanised extraction of the copper coil within is done with the help of a compressor cutter and motor cutter.
Only automated large household appliance recycling plant in S'pore
EWR2 is unique in that it has Singapore's only automated large household appliance recycling plant.
Instead of having staff knock it down, the fridge itself is fed into the vertical crusher, which destroys the fridge in the blink of an eye.
The machines then automatically sort the materials into foam, plastic, magnetic, and non-magnetic with a magnetic separator.
And just like that, a fridge is recycled.
The facility is able to recover more than 95 per cent of the materials and 80 per cent can be recycled, according to Lai.
Finally, the materials are sold as products, while any glass is passed down to downstream recycling plants.
A highly automated recycling facility
As you can see, most of the work is done by machines.
As such, the facility boasts a very lean workforce.
Yap shared that each machine only really requires one staff member to load products in and operate, and the facility currently hires about 10 employees.
According to Lai, 70 to 80 per cent less manpower is required to operate the facility due to its automation.
At the end of the visit, Khor shared:
"As we move towards a more sustainable future, the government will continue to drive and support efforts in technology, and research and development in order to transform our industry, as well as to upskill our workforce."
Top images by Kow Zi Shan