PETROLEUM-BASED plastic materials are a major contributor to global environmental problems, building up in oceans and landfills and harming all manner of animal life, says Olive Green joint managing director Cheryl Leo.
According to the National Environment Agency (NEA), Singapore's overall recycling rate was 61 per cent in 2015. Nonetheless, Ms Leo added that while current plastic disposables have the potential to be recycled, they are usually not because of food contamination.
"Even though disposable plastic crockery and cutlery are recyclable, they are usually not recycled because they have to be washed first. Plastic cannot be recycled if it is contaminated with food, so it is simply cheaper to process it like normal rubbish."
Olive Green Pte Ltd, which launched its flagship CornWare brand of biodegradable disposable crockery and cutlery in 2008, wants to help solve this problem by replacing non- biodegradable petroleum plastic materials with eco-friendly alternatives.
Ms Leo's partner Aloysius Cheong, joint managing director and chief executive of Olive Green, said that their CornWare is the first brand of corn- based disposables in Asia, and is also registered in 12 countries across Europe and Asia, and in the US.
Explaining that Olive Green goes beyond simply making and distributing eco-friendly disposable cutlery and crockery, Mr Cheong said the company uses a myriad of natural chemicals for different applications.
Indeed, Olive Green's work extends beyond the F&B industry. Whether it's plastic carrier bags used in supermarkets, bottled mineral water bought off the shelf, or plastic packaging that encases electronic items, the company is developing biodegradable materials to replace the petroleum-based plastics that are currently in use, said Mr Cheong.
"Olive Green extracts natural chemicals from plants, and transforms the chemicals into semi-finished and end products. In particular, we focus on nine naturally occurring chemicals which can be extracted and commercialised. The one we use for our CornWare range as well as our other F&B products is thermoplastic starch. For electronics packaging and plastic bag manufacturing, however, we use polylactic acid. Different materials are better suited for different purposes."
CornWare is manufactured by extracting starch from corn kernels, and chemically combining it with plastic to produce a hardy yet eco-friendly material - thermoplastic starch - which the CornWare-branded crockery and cutlery are made from.
The presence of plastic means that CornWare is not completely natural. But Ms Leo said that despite this addition, CornWare remains environment-friendly. "There is only a very small percentage of plastic in the CornWare - most of it is still corn. The reason why we added plastic into the mix was to make it functional."
Mr Cheong elaborated: "As environment-friendly as a plate made out of 100 per cent corn starch is, if it is not functional then it will not sell. A 100 per cent corn-starch plate is too soft and cannot hold liquids well. By adding plastic, the material becomes firmer and hardier, making it suitable for use." He added that the plastic does not stop CornWare from being biodegradable. "By mixing the plastic with the corn starch, we have created a new chemical compound - not a mixture. When microorganisms act on the CornWare to break it down, it therefore acts as if the material was wholly made from natural plant material. Critically, this means the whole thing - the corn and the plastic - will be broken down naturally."
Ms Leo, however, said that while CornWare is biodegradable, it is not compostable. This is because the plastic chemical component in the CornWare material would remain even after biodegradation. Plastic, unlike corn, is unable to transform into soil nutrients.
Mr Cheong contrasted CornWare, made from thermoplastic starch, with other plastic-like products made from naturally sourced polylactic acid which does not have additional plastic added.
During the interview, he took out a bent orange spoon made with 100 per cent polylactic acid, also made by Olive Green; it was bent as he had earlier poured hot water on it, he said.
Thermoplastic starch, unlike polylactic acid, does not warp under similar warm temperatures. Gesturing towards the bent spoon, Mr Cheong said: "Even though it is completely biodegradable and compostable, polylactic acid is not as suitable for making eating utensils as not only does it warp when subjected to heat, the material is also not as strong.
"However, if you bury this spoon in soil today, it will completely disappear without a trace after six months, and the soil will even be left enriched by it. So while it is less practical, it is even more environment-friendly."
When asked about Olive Green's prospects, Mr Cheong believes there is a lot of potential for the company as it has "the right product at the right time". He believes Olive Green can succeed by riding the wave of the ongoing green revolution, and the drive towards more environmentally sustainable solutions.
He said the global market share for eco-friendly biodegradable plastics was less than 0.1 per cent in 2005. But in 2015, the corresponding figure was 2 per cent - a 20-fold increase. By 2020, he predicted the corresponding market share will be 5 per cent.
Mr Cheong said: "Businesses and corporations the world over are interested in going green. So we believe that now is the ideal time to enter these markets and capitalise on the movement.
"If you ask me how many competitors I have building similar products, I can probably count them on the fingers of one hand. My real competition is the companies who manufacture and distribute plastic and styrofoam products - as these are the suppliers we have to incentivise consumers to switch from."
He said his commercial products such as CornWare are priced at highly competitive levels, comparable to the prices of other plastic disposables on the market now.
Even so, market penetration is not consistent across different markets. In China, for example, it is relatively weak because consumers there would still rather use styrofoam, which tends to be cheaper than plastic. However, for markets like the UK and the US, Mr Cheong said penetration is relatively strong due to their relatively higher levels of wealth, giving consumers more options to switch from petroleum plastic goods.
The company is first targeting disposables in the F&B industry as it is the largest consumer of disposable cutlery and utensils in the world - with an estimated 65 per cent of such products consumed by this one industry alone, said Mr Cheong.
The electronics and pharmaceutical industries are the two next largest users of disposable plastic packaging. Olive Green is looking to expand in these areas in the future.
At present, the company is working with the F&B, electronics, and bagging sectors to build eco-friendly plastic substitutes to be used for packaging purposes. It is also entering into discussions with companies in the pharmaceutical, bottling, and horticulture sectors.
Olive Green can also manufacture bespoke products to suit particular client needs. One example is a biodegradable plastic bag it made that can be fully biodegraded in two days - down from a usual time period of several months, Mr Cheong said.
While he did not disclose much details about the company's financials, he said: "Olive Green is on track for S$4.4 million revenue by the close of this financial year ending Dec 31 . . . (and) we expect the company to continue doing well".
Amendment note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 5 per cent of the rubbish in Singapore is recycled. It is in fact 61 per cent. The article above has been revised to reflect this.