Dealing with single-use food packaging has always been a thorny issue and remains a tricky problem for Singapore. Sustainability solutions-driven TRIA, a Singapore-based foodware company, uses design and circular systems thinking to breakdown the complexity and gaps enshrouding the recycling of single-use packaging to achieve a triple win solution for consumers, businesses and the environment.
Single-use food packaging (SUFP) is heavily used by the food services industry. While it enables convenience, reduces labour and enhances food safety, it is not designed to be reused. Given that many of such packaging are made from multiple layers of different materials, when they are stained with food scraps, they are hard to recycle and often end up in the environment or get incinerated. This is both a waste of resources, and a burden to current waste management capacity and future generations.
In 2018, Singapore only managed a meagre four percent plastic recycling rate against 500,000 tonnes of packaging waste, which is equivalent to recycling nine out of 250 Olympic-sized swimming pools of waste.
Seeing a gap and a choke point in the value-chain to sustainably deal with the problem posed by SUFP, TRIA, a Singapore-based sustainable food packaging and solutions company, decided that more must be done to help the food service industry move towards a circular pattern of production and consumption.
Going back to the beginning
With a background in industrial design and innovation, Ng Pei Kang, TRIA’s founder and CEO, set out to tackle the problem of SUFP with a cross-boundary systems approach, grounded on the principles of design thinking and circular packaging.
“We wanted to track the journey of waste and work backwards to connect the dots,” he explains. “The objective was to find ways to close the waste loop, understand the real issues associated with waste, and develop a realistic and workable business model. We wanted to create a scalable solution that is technically feasible, economically viable, and user-responsive. This tri-factor is important for any solution to be adopted and effective.”
TRIA then deep dived into the industry and worked with stakeholders along the value chain to pull together a close-loop system that can work.
TRIA’s research unveiled an ugly truth – SUFP, while often claimed as “recyclable”, is not recycled in practice. Used SUFP is usually discarded with food scraps, causing it to be stained, wet and messy. Such packaging is not collected by recyclers who require it to be dry and clean. Hence, many SUFP end up in the incinerator and/or landfill instead of being recycled.
With more understanding of the food service sector and the convolutions of waste systems, TRIA derived the following insights:
- The business model of Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) is built around fast turnaround and ease of operation, and SUFP is a crucial enabler. Switching to non-disposable options (washable tableware, etc) requires a fundamental change in operations, additional manpower, and even renovations, which can be very costly, especially for restaurant chains that requires a scalable solution with its global franchisees.
This highlights the inherent difficulty to move away from the single-use nature of food packaging. How then do we work with this constraint?
- Due to the wet and messy nature of food service waste, it is difficult to recycle SUFP waste without extensive segregation. The cost of segregating can cost five times more than the SUFP itself, which is prohibitive considering the already low margins of QSR brands.
Segregation of waste is a major disabler of recycling.
- There are compostable packaging materials available, which in principle can be composted with food scraps without the need to segregate. However, these materials require a long composting time, typically three to six months, to be processed in an industrial composting facility, none of which is available in Singapore. Here, such waste is usually incinerated within a day or two due to pest and hygiene concerns.
This is an opportunity for TRIA to develop technologies that can rapidly digest packaging materials.
Armed with insights gathered and a determination to close the loop, TRIA ventured into unchartered terrain. Pei Kang knew he had to be empathetic to restaurants, without any disruptions to their operations. And if TRIA could effectively give waste a new lease of life and derive monetary value from it, the solution could become commercially viable.
And this was how Bio24 was conceptualised. A four-component solution, it comprises:
- A proprietary plant-based material called NEUTRIA®, which was developed to replace plastics in food packaging.
- TRIA’s patented hyper composter which can rapidly digest packaging waste into soil-ready compost. The development of this technology took eight years and cost more than $1 million.
- A method to enhance compost into high-value fertiliser.
- A cross-industry circular alliance comprising waste management companies (waste collection and digestion operations) and farms (off-takers of fertiliser).
Bio24 enables QSR brands to achieve SUFP circularity without operational changes to their outlets, allowing them to continue business-as-usual. This is done through TRIA taking ownership of the closed-loop process, from the supply of foodware, to collecting it back, digestion, and conversion into fertiliser. This end-to-end ownership presents a realistic and ‘real-life’ model of Extended Producers Responsibility – a concept of circularity introduced in Europe that requires the product manufacturer to be responsible for take-back and recycling.
“This is something that I felt needed to be done,” says Pei Kang. “We can do with more systems thinking in sustainability because sustainability is not an isolated problem. The packaging industry still has an outdated thinking that a new material will solve our packaging waste problem, or that recycling – either mechanical or chemical – is the answer. That is a narrow way of addressing the problem because many existing barriers to recycling like segregation, collection, and even human behaviour and awareness on what can and cannot be recycled, and which bins to place what packaging material into, are still prevalent.”
He adds that his experience in design thinking and innovation helped to dissect the problem, connect the dots and develop a solution that is circular and addresses the needs of businesses, consumers and the environment.
Outcomes to date
The Bio24 system removes the need to incinerate waste, which is a linear approach that is also energy intensive and bad for the climate. Moreover, TRIA is able to generate new revenue from the waste. By further spiking the compost with enrichment methods, the waste can become high-quality fertiliser for agricultural uses.
Bio24 has been making impact with its breakthrough technology, having been featured in over 50 events in the last few years, including Plasticity (in Thailand and Malaysia), Global Table (Australia), and FIA Future Summit (Singapore). It was also mentioned by DPM Heng Swee Keat in his Budget Speech in Parliament in 2019. TRIA also won the Best Innovation Award at the Emerging Enterprise Award in Singapore in 2019, and Pei Kang was named in Eco-Business’ A-list for Sustainability Leadership in 2020.
The launch of Bio24 is timely with the National Environment Agency taking strong action to increase the recycling rate through the Resource Sustainability Act in 2019 and its introduction of a Deposit Refund Scheme for post-consumer beverage packaging in 2023. These regulations will mandate how companies should treat their packaging waste, and force many to relook their use of unsustainable packaging and to accelerate their adoption of circular processes.
With sustainability gaining traction globally, the future of TRIA’s Bio24 system is bright. TRIA has since received interest from more than 20 potential clients and partners on a global level, ranging from cruise ships and airlines, to caterers and QSR brands.
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