Singapore scrapped approximately 817 million kilogrammes of food in 2021. The staggering figure is equivalent to two bowls of rice per person per day, which is a lot when you take into consideration that we import 90 percent of our food. We haven’t even gotten to the part about the impact of plastic food packaging on the environment.
Witnessing “whole communities choking under the weight of their waste” during her travels, Karen Cheah became inspired to tackle these issues and found the perfect opportunity to bring her idea to life while working on her capstone project for her master of sciences degree in innovation at SMU.
“We were challenged to solve a global problem with a hypothetical startup and I wanted to use food waste to create an alternative form to plastic containers. The project evolved when I realised that there was the possibility of providing a real solution,” she says.
Using organic waste—a mixture of spent grains and agricultural waste—her company creates biodegradable alternatives to plastic disposables widely used in food packaging today. But don’t call it a food packaging company. Alterpacks is a startup offering new materials with technology at its core.
An erstwhile senior media executive, she decided to switch industries when the media landscape was going through a transition and she found herself having to retrench staff “in the name of innovation and digitisation”.
“Our technology allows us to convert food loss into economic value that we can return to the supply chain. The material can provide the functionalities of what consumers are looking for in plastic containers, including holding wet and oily foods, storing food in the freezer, and using them in the microwave, but without the negative environmental impact.” Cheah says.
She has no illusions that the current price difference between her products and plastic ones is a huge inhibitor for mass take-up, and aims to match the price point of plastic products with sufficient volume. But that’s just one challenge. Cheah has a series of other hoops to jump through.
For one, a growing demand to include embellishments such as colours and transparent sections will complicate material compostability, increase energy use, and affect the already tricky issue of cost. Then, there is a degree of scrutiny that seemingly does not apply to plastics.
“Our eco-friendly containers have international certification and are subjected to heat tests and freeze blasts. Yet, the same level of probing and expectations appears to be missing from existing plastic packaging,” Cheah notes.
Topping that is the requirement for bespoke designs. “Clients want us to tailor our products to their needs rather than replicate something off the shelf. This is even after our containers have passed all the tests.”
With her strong will, she will find a way, especially when she knows the solution won’t come with challenging consumer behaviour, but with making it easy for people to diverge from products they’re used to. Alterpacks already has three stages of expansion plans in the pipeline—and she is willing to go into ovrdrive.
“Right now, we are creating bio-pellets from spent grains to replace petroleumbased resins used in standard manufacturing machines creating containers. In the midterm, we will be expanding our range of agricultural waste and products, which includes disposed coconut shells.
“But our long-term goal is to provide other forms of material created from waste and food loss as raw materials that other companies can use to form their own packaging and products, eliminating the need for virgin pulp and paper.”
Videography: Yvonne Isabelle Ling
Photography: Cher Him
Producer: Adora Wong
Styling: Chia Wei Choong
Hair: Peter Lee, using Goldwell
Makeup: Keith Bryant Lee, using Shiseido
Photography Assistant: Glin
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Written by: Adora Wong
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