Syed Zain Almohdzar's company Klean shows how determination and the right perspective can ignite local environmental awareness among consumers and corporations alike
It’s a common belief among the environmentally conscious that plastic is evil and needs to be avoided or removed from existence. But Syed Zain Almohdzar, the chief technology officer of Janz Technologies, has a different take on the matter.
“In Malaysia, we think plastic is bad, that it's better to find alternatives,” says the entrepreneur, who is a recipient of this year's Gen.T x Credit Suisse Social Impact Awards. “But other countries don't do that. To them, it’s about how responsible you are with dealing with plastic waste.”
He believes that demonising plastic achieves nothing. Controlling the circular movement of plastic within the economy is a far better response.
“It’s how people dispose of plastic that’s the problem. Plastic can be sustainable if there’s a system to recycle and put it back into circulation.”
This is what Klean, the reverse vending machine (RVM) developed by Janz Technologies, was designed to accomplish.
The RVM enables consumers to recycle plastic bottles and aluminium cans in exchange for rewards, which are redeemable through a mobile app.
“Recycling isn’t part of Malaysian culture, so our RVMs are here to push for behavioural change. For people to recycle, there has to be convenience. Our mission is to ensure our infrastructure gives them that.”
The RVM is the first of its kind to be designed and assembled locally. The first three machines were launched in 2020. Now, there are a total of 34 in operation across the country.
Since the machine's debut, about 420,000 containers have been recycled through Klean with 21,800 unique recyclers recorded. Meanwhile, 2.2 million Klean points have been redeemed, amounting to RM250,000 (about US$56,500) in value.
As for its carbon offset, Klean has contributed to 37.5 tonnes in savings to date. “The idea here is you’re calculating how much carbon you’d use to recycle a plastic bottle compared to producing a brand new one from virgin plastic,” Zain explains.
He believes such information will soon become valuable for local businesses once Bursa Malaysia, the country's stock exchange, introduces its voluntary carbon exchange market.
“Klean will give companies the opportunity to collect and analyse data about their social impact.”
Offering such data insights on Klean requires the use of artificial intelligence (AI). “We use AI to validate containers inserted into Klean to ensure that people aren’t throwing in [other] rubbish. Our dashboard also gleans data from these recycling activities and translates them into a carbon footprint calculation.”
With food manufacturers constantly evolving their product offerings and packaging designs, Zain says his team regularly updates Klean's virtual library in order to accommodate new types of containers. But that’s not the only challenge they have faced so far.
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In a previous iteration of Klean, recyclable items dropped into the RVM would sometimes get stuck inside, requiring on-site intervention. “We were using a rail guide system and maintenance-wise, it was quite difficult,” Zain says.
His team eventually came up with a better solution: A conveyor belt system, which enables remote troubleshooting and a smoother input process for recyclable containers.
Plastic can be sustainable if there’s a system to recycle and put it back in circulation
For Zain, who began his career in advertising before advancing into entrepreneurial endeavours, problem-solving and adapting to changes in this manner isn't new.
“I’m the type who goes with the flow,” he says. “I do my best to adapt to situations. In business, it’s about perseverance and motivation. Even when things don’t go your way, you can’t give up.”
Looking ahead, Zain hopes more Malaysians will realise how crucial Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) is for the economy and is looking to partner with other corporations to develop the country's ESG ecosystem. “It shouldn’t be a buzzword for the sake of publicity. It’s something we should work towards.”
Zain stresses the importance of ensuring real environmental impact instead of mere greenwashing.
“There are goals under the Triple Bottom Line concept where you need to impact people and the planet while being profitable. As long as you’re achieving all three objectives, you’re okay.”
Wherever you might be in your ESG journey, it’s best to get started somewhere. After all, Zain himself admits that he wasn’t always environmentally aware.
“Working on Klean changed my perspective on sustainability. It made me more conscious about how my choices affect the environment. That naturally evolved into making me more responsible.”