Tech Doing Good

From cleaning up mountains of untreated sludge to making railway stations fully solar-powered, technology is an ally to those hoping to solve Asia’s environmental problems.

7. Waste Management: Breaking down our plastic addiction

Eateries are no longer providing plastic straws, while supermarkets have started to charge for plastic bags. Despite these social conditioning efforts, we are still very much reliant on petroleum-based plastics in our everyday lives.

Biodegradable plastics, or bioplastics for short, could be the solution to our plastic addiction. Instead of being made from petroleum, they are made by extracting sugar from plants to form polylactic acids (PLAs), or by the bacterial fermentation of plant-based oils or sugars to form polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).

Before we rejoice, PLA plastics can only be degraded at elevated temperatures in an industrial composting facility. If they end up in the ocean, they function similarly to petroleum-based plastics, breaking down into microparticles and presenting a danger to marine life.

On the other hand, PHA plastics are readily biodegradable. Using medium-chain-length PHAs, Singapore-based startup RWDC Industries has made plastic-lined paper for food packaging that dissipate in the soil and water within weeks and leave behind no toxic residue.

In April 2019, the company successfully closed a US$22 million Series A3 round, which will be used to expand its PHA production capacity in the US to 2,000 tons per year. RWDC expects its PHA straws to be commercially available later this year.

8. Waste Management: No longer bugged by the smell of food waste

We often associate decomposing food with a repulsive, rotten stench. Thanks to Westcom Solutions, a Singapore-based microbial technology company, we can now compost food waste into odorless, dry-powder fertilizers at an industrial scale.

Developed and patented in Singapore, Westcom’s microbial treatment breaks down food waste including bones, dough, tofu and sugar cane safely and effectively. Its machines provide a 90 percent reduction in food waste—for every 100 kg of food waste, 10 kg of dry, organic fertilizers can be collected and used without further processing. The treatment requires a low operating temperature of about 40°C instead of the conventional 80–120°C, resulting in electricity savings.

In an ambitious next move, the company is working on a sanitation project in China that involves degrading human waste produced in public toilets at tourist sites and rural areas, using microbes that can convert human waste into fertilizer within 24 hours.

There is keen interest for bio-toilets in China, especially after Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a public relations campaign in 2015 declaring war on poorly maintained public toilets, in what has now been dubbed the “toilet revolution.”

The company is also developing solutions for biodegradable plastic waste and large animal bones.

Lidao is a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Oxford, UK. An aspiring scientist, he is excited to learn about the latest discoveries and even more intrigued by the fascinating stories behind them. In his free time, he enjoys badminton, swimming and running around Singapore to uncover the best durian spots.

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