Community Recycling: Taiwan Buddhist Tzu-Chi Foundation Malaysia

This is a project located in #Malaysia.

Related SDGs:

  • #SDG12 (Responsible consumption and production)
  • #SDG11 (Sustainable cities and communities)

Data collection methods: Field visit, interview

Updated since: 2014


Taiwan Buddhist Tzu-Chi Foundation Malaysia (here forth Tzu-Chi) is a Buddhist association that originated from Taiwan in 1966, and has been registered in Malaysia as a foundation since 1996. Since 1990, the founder Master Cheng Yen enlisted Environmental Protection as one of the organisation’s “8 Charitable Footprints”. Her followers all over the world are urged to recycle as part of their service in exercising their faith. There are four regional headquarters in Malaysia: the Central (Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Pahang), the South (Negeri Sembilan, Malacca and Johor), the North (Penang, Perlis, Perak, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan), and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). Each of the headquarters report directly to the main headquarters in Taiwan.

Recycling is considered to be a meaningful activity to reach out to the public, with a low barrier of entry and visible results. Tzu-Chi regards their recruitment of recycling volunteers as “recruitment of Bodhisattvas”, i.e. enlightened and compassionate beings who serve others selflessly as the embodiment of Buddha’s spirit. Through recycling at a personal level, many volunteers are inspired to spread the message to their friends and family, or to expand to implementing recycling systems at the workplace.

In terms of operations, Tzu-Chi volunteers run recycling points and recycling stations. Recycling points are temporary locations that the members congregate at specific times to collect recyclables. Recycling stations provide a permanent location for collecting, sorting and storing recyclables. The recycling points and stations are positioned in high density residential areas. Volunteers organise to meet at varied times that enable different types of participants to come, e.g. weekday mornings for housewives and retired people, weekday evenings for office people to come after work, and weekends for families.

Tzu-Chi has volunteers to sort through unwanted clothes (which they get in high volume) and repair broken electrical appliances. For goods that are still in good quality, they are sold through Tzu-Chi second hand centres at a low price. These centres are frequented by migrant workers, who buy the products for personal use or for re-selling at the market. Other recyclables (such as paper and plastic) are sorted to increase their value, and sold in bulk to interested buyers. The money earned is channelled into Tzu-Chi’s operations or charity purposes.

See the video by Youth On Unity to have a clearer idea on Tzu-Chi’s recycling:

Philosophy/Values/Traditional knowledge

The philosophy behind Tzu-Chi’s recycling can be encapsulated in three steps: to purify one’s heart and soul, to ensure peace and harmony in society, and to free the world from disasters and calamities. Through the process of recycling, the volunteer cleanses her soul from negativity and greed for material possessions. She uses recycling as a tool for spiritual betterment, and the positive difference is then amplified at the societal level and then the global level. As the individual benefits from the act, she does it willingly and without compensation.

Organisational model

Tzu-Chi has been registered in Malaysia as a foundation. It has 13,500 volunteers actively engaged in recycling. There are 1,000 recycling stations and recycling points across the country.

Triple Bottomline

Social sustainability:

  • While collecting and sorting through waste, volunteers experience gratification in turning trash to resource and preserving the environment, and reap the meditative effect of doing repetitive and manual work. The act of recycling has been helpful to people suffering from depression or general loneliness and isolation.
  • People from all walks of life come together to serve as “the earth’s gardeners”, with recycling as the tool to rekindle the community spirit and solidarity with other living beings, as well as the sense of appreciation towards life in general.
  • The recycling stations also double as centres for education (for recycling and for Buddhist teachings) and community activities. Tzu-Chi does not discriminate among race or religion, and has volunteers of different faiths.

Environmental sustainability:

  • From the recycling programme, volunteers learn about waste and product cycles experientially, and view “rubbish” as “resource” with a zero waste mentality. Through sorting through household waste of others, their own consumption patterns change.
  • Tzu-Chi also does considerable environmental education, reaching out to its thousands of volunteers through newsletters and face-to-face activities. Among the environmental acts advocated are vegetarianism, as well as refraining from burning joss paper during the Seventh Lunar Month to pray to the dead (which is common in Chinese customs) that releases considerable carbon emissions.

Economic sustainability

  • There are four funds that are administered within Tzu-Chi – the Charity Fund (for low income families, disaster relief and home visit programmes), Development Fund (for supporting the organisation to promote its 4 missions), International Fund (for international disaster relief) and Building Fund (for construction of infrastructure such as the Jing Si Hall). Tzu-Chi collects donations from its members and volunteers, and allows them to choose the Fund that they wish to contribute to. The Charity Fund and International Fund are well-funded, therefore income from the recycling programme goes to the Building Fund or the Development Fund, in maintaining the Tzu-Chi’s operations.


  • Committed volunteers are difficult to find.
  • Some of the waste are theoretically recyclable but are trashed because there is no local buyer in Malaysia.
  • While working on the ground, Tzu-Chi sometimes faces problems with bureaucracy, on applying for permits for their recycling points and recycling stations. On using recycling stations that are provided by the municipality councils, the stations vary widely in facilities provided, from “proper” recycling stations that include toilets, to just a small patch of vacant land.

Feature image credit goes to Leo Club of SMK Jinjang



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