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In the Covid era, circularity can be a new frontier as well as a desert: TRIA chief Ng Pei Kang

Sustainable food packaging entrepreneur Ng Pei Kang talks to Eco-Business about the highs and lows of being in the circular economy business amid a pandemic.

Ng Pei Kang had been working for six years as the innovations lead in one of the world’s top health technology companies when he decided to make a career switch to sustainability.

Coming from the consumer electronics sector where gadgets flew off shelves as quickly as they came in, he said it was time to do something more “meaningful”.

“[Where I used to work] was one of the best training grounds for engineers and research and development in the world, but everyone was just in a race to be the first in innovation, for innovation’s sake. I got tired of that. What if we could divert everyone’s talent to a space that really needed it, like sustainability?” Ng said. 

The 39-year old product designer did just that when he delved into Singapore’s ubiquitous plastic waste problem. In 2019, the country generated 930,000 tonnes of plastic waste, of which only 4 per cent was recycled. For three years, he researched solutions on what he calls the “real problem of circularity”: The end-of-life of food and food packaging.

In 2016, he launched TRIA to meet this gap in the market. Together with the firm’s co-founder Tan Meng Chong, Ng developed two technologies—food packaging made of plant-based materials, and a rapid digestion technology called Bio24 that converts used packaging and food scraps into mineral-rich fertiliser within a day. 

The technologies made TRIA a finalist in the first edition of The Liveability Challenge in 2018, an event organised by Eco-Business and awards winners with up to S$1 million in funding from Temasek Foundation.

Today, as the world reels from the Covid-19 pandemic, Ng said his company is not yet profitable as it pours “seven figures” of its revenue into research and development.

As the pandemic disrupted supply chains, various government institutions asked Ng to manufacture and supply traditional plastic packaging but he declined, despite impacts on the start-up’s income. 

“Because of the sheer amount of takeaway packaging during Covid, the problem of single-use plastics has been brought more to light. Consumers are the driving force behind circularity, and the pandemic has made them demand for more environmental solutions,” Ng said. “We just needed enough pain to make things move.”

In an interview, Ng tells Eco-Business what makes circularity a “tough business”, why the industry is not attracting top talent, and why he has no regrets in embarking on this path. 

How have your plans been hampered by Covid?

We were trying to call for Series A funding in 2020. In view of our memorandum of understanding with [food solutions and gateway service provider] Sats to design a closed-loop foodware and our Bio24 food waste system for the aviation industry, Singapore Airlines was part of the conversation for a tripartite agreement. We had an MOU leading to a proof of concept but that didn’t quite happen. We are now pushing back that plan to this year.

We have to show everyone the fully-working model because it pulls together different industries… I think there is a certain fear among investors that it might not work, but we need to prove that circularity is possible.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned this year?

Sustainability is in a difficult space where you have to make sure [your product or service] is scalable. Sustainability and scalability have an inverse relationship. There have been a lot of sustainability, corporate social responsibility movements, but they are only one-time events because there is no scalable business model.

There are people who want to fund and promote sustainability activities, but there is a big gulf between sustainability and scalability. It really requires commitment to invest in scalability to realise circularity.

Why do you say that commitment is needed for circular solutions to be achieved?

Due to Covid-19 impacts, cost is the first topic investors bring up. It’s so easy for the brand owner to say, “I want a cost-neutral model where I don’t spend more.” The big players are not going to bite if you don’t push down the cost. But it is not just us who should be commiting to the cause of achieving circularity. We need the customers, and in this case the business owners, to commit to it too.

They need to have the faith [to stay the course with] us for [at least] three years. Right now, it’s not possible to speak to any of these big companies and expect more than one year of commitment. If they are not able to commit to a sizeable deal, we are not able to reduce the price. It goes both ways. 

Do you think investors are noncommittal only because of the pandemic? 

In 2020, funders were really having difficulty in commiting. But the food packaging industry today really has a very low profit margin, which is also a reason why there hasn’t been a lot of innovation, let alone to address sustainability. There are certain signals in industry that tell you that circularity is a desert.

When you see the food packaging concepts students come out with, compared to the products you see on the market—it’s a stark difference between aspiration and reality.

There is a big disconnect between the manufacturers and the end-of-life of their materials. The discussion today is still on safe-to-dispose, not even on circularity yet. We had been in this state for the last 15 to 30 years. It’s kind of sad but also speaks of how little thought, resources, and innovation there is in this sector. 

Do you regret leaving the consumer electronics industry, where there is more innovation and funding?

No regrets. It has been time well spent [in sustainability]. This is why we need to come in and contribute our skillsets, take it to the next level with innovation in mind. We have to be relentless to get where we need to be and to get our investors to realise that we are coming up with innovation to consolidate the market and take circularity to a higher level. 

What is TRIA’s value-add?

I think value-adding through innovation is the way to break the stalemate in sustainability, and we really shouldn’t be waiting for top-down policies, which may take a while and many have grown reliant on, to happen.

The way we approach sustainability is very passive—businesses and consumers waiting for the government to take action. Think of how iTunes changed the music industry and created a win for all parties—consumer, artist, record company, hardware company. In comparison, I think the food packaging industry is really not trying.

If you picture the whole value chain from material manufacturing, distribution to disposal, it is one with a fixed amount of profits. TRIA has taken it forward with extended producer responsibility (EPR), where the waste is collected back. Many businesses are strongly resisting EPR due to the additional cost for collection. So the way to do this is to create value-add to make companies willing to contribute to the pool. The first player to be able to do that will have a head start in this trillion-dollar industry. 

Is there hope for circularity amid the pandemic? 

I think circularity is a tough business, with or without the pandemic. What does it take to achieve the end goal of circularity and be impact-driven?

Let’s think of technology, consumers and business adoption as a full-circle solution. There is business resistance to do so simply because this will mean a structural change to the value chain, along with costs and hassle, and change is not always welcomed by everyone.

How will you convince other innovators to take up the circular economy challenge? 

We need the best of minds to solve this problem. There are a lot of talented people out there but sustainability may not be the most attractive industry to get into. I’m comparing it to consumer electronics, where there is the adrenaline rush of new gadgets coming out and the tech world is able to attract amazing talent.

We really need to create that appeal in sustainability. Circularity is the new frontier. It’s extremely difficult to make it work, even harder than most industries out there. If we are able to create the first working model, there’s a lot of promise. 

This story is part of a series on the finalists of The Liveability Challenge, an annual search for solutions to make Southeast Asia’s cities cleaner, greener places to live and work, backed by Temasek Foundation. The launch of The Liveability Challenge 2021 will take place on 15 January.

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