CUTLERY and packaging labelled as "biodegradable" have wormed their way into the local food industry in years, as more consumers and businesses become environmentally conscious. But what happens to these products after they are used?
Most end up in landfills where they may not decompose for years, as they can only break down in specific conditions in industrial composting plants.
Ng Pei Kang, chief executive of Singapore firm Tria, a company that designs and sells eco-friendly containers and cutlery to eateries, said that it could soon close the loop on zero-waste here.
Tria plans to work with local waste management company Chye Thiam Maintenance to collect Tria's products from users for processing into compost to be sold to local vegetable farms at a "competitive" price.
The company will bring in its clients and proprietary system for breaking down the foodware and food waste, while Chye Thiam will contribute its waste collection expertise and manpower.
"This elegantly takes off (the burden from businesses) because this is just a service. So, for the businesses, they don't need to invest in any machinery. This is just a waste collection service," Mr Ng said in an interview with The Business Times.
Tria's timeline involves a proof-of-concept trial with a few clients over the next three months, with an eye to setting up a joint venture in early 2020.
The homegrown startup is confident of meeting the local vegetable farms' demand for some 30,000 tonnes of compost a day.
Tria estimates it could produce 20,000 tonnes from the combined waste of McDonald's, KFC and Subway alone. With its waste digestion system, Tria's foodware can be reduced to compost in 24 hours.
Mr Ng is also weighing overseas ventures for Tria, which now has more than 30 clients, including 4Fingers and Tim Ho Wan, under its belt.
"This is an international opportunity because to some extent, I think what we offer is quite different," he said. "Most people are still at the level of providing patchwork and partial solutions, whereas, I think, we have the full solution here."
Tria has applied to patent the technology for its waste digestion system and plans to extend the protection across 30 countries.
It is setting its sights on Europe - where a ban on single-use plastics will come into force in 2021 - as well as Canada, and several states in the US.
"We have already been receiving enquiries," Mr Ng said. "I think (companies from) 15 countries have already asked."
Tria, which has been privately funded thus far, will seek venture capital financing for its expansion going forward, starting with a S$5 million Series A round next year.
In search for more meaningful work years ago, Mr Ng and his co-founder Tan Meng Chong decided to try their hand at tackling the dilemma of single-use plastics and burgeoning waste.
"It's an interesting problem to solve. On one hand, we know the convenience factor. But on the other hand, we know it's no longer sustainable," Mr Ng said.
However, they were cognisant that it is not an easy decision for businesses to switch to sustainable products. For consumers, there also needs to be "more empathy" instead of simply asking them to stop using disposables, they said.
Tria has adapted its approach to make it as easy as possible for businesses and consumers alike. In this case, the zero waste solution does not require a change in consumer lifestyle nor change in food and beverage operations, said Mr Ng.
It has also caught the industry's attention by eschewing drab food packaging for more visually appealing designs. Last year, Tria clinched the gold award at the international Pentawards for its redesign of Crave Nasi Lemak's takeaway boxes.
Revenue has tripled since Tria started in 2016. Mr Ng declined to reveal specific figures but said that revenue has crossed the seven-figure mark.
In the next three years, the goal is to grow revenue 25 times, with the zero waste solution a key driver.
"Let's just say, we started something quite different in the food packaging world. If you look at the food packaging available out there, it's a bit dry," said Mr Ng. "And there's a reason for that. It's because the margins are so low."
To keep prices competitive, Tria set up its factory in China while keeping the research & development (R&D) and marketing activities in Singapore.
"I believe by relooking the system, optimising it and reconfiguring certain things, we've managed to squeeze out a certain R&D budget - and that has allowed us to introduce a bit more innovation to the market," Mr Ng said.