Coming from a background of digital media, film-making, and digital marketing, Yen-Lyng fell into the sustainability field when she joined a waste management company as a Recycling Ambassador. During that time, she saw the many intricacies and challenges facing the very overlooked and underappreciated world of waste. So, when given the opportunity of working on a coffee recycling project, Yen-Lyng jumped at it. She will tell you more about her why and what of coffee recycling in her sharing and the challenges of lauching sustainable projects.
A1 Environment started in 2012 as a general recycling and paper trading company. Sustainability IS the core of the company - it is what we do.
A1’s founders combined have been in the waste management industry for over half a century and the business is based on sustainability and creating a circular economy.
We upcycle grounds in 2 ways. Since we started recycling spent coffee grounds in 2012, we have been sending it to a local organic farm. In the past couple of years, we have been working together with Nanyang Polytechnic to create a fire-retardant material that is made up of around 50% of coffee grounds.
We have had many suggestions of ‘why don’t you ... [some kind of idea of what to do with coffee grounds]’ and believe me, we asked ourselves almost all of them. The harsh fact is, there are many ideas of what to do with coffee grounds, some are even good ideas, but what is applicable at such a large scale is another matter.
COFFEE IN COMPOST
We have approached other farms, but they have been unwilling to try or receive coffee grounds to be included as part of their compost formula, for one reason or another. And even if they do pay for other components of their compost, they are unwilling to pay for coffee grounds, because it is untested. Local farms have also been very proprietary of their compost mix, so till now, very little information has been shared about how coffee grounds actually help in large scale agriculture.
Ultimately, we are a waste collection and management company which sent our recyclables to companies whose expertise was to create products from the recyclables. So, we reached out to companies who had current technology in upcycling spent coffee grounds but they were uninterested or unable to bring the technology to Singapore. After working with NYP to find a solution, we tried to find partners to come in as the manufacturing arm in the project as we understood that they had the experience in it, but we were turned down too.
In the end, we reached a point where we had to pull our socks up and say “we will do it ourselves”. Definitely, much research can still be done on the other available methods and even how we can improve our current product but we have our limitations of size and capital at the moment. We are not closing the doors there yet though. It is a case of starting now, not being perfect, but developing step by step.
WHERE WE SEND COFFEE GROUNDS
This has been the largest hurdle we have faced. This sounds rudimentary but without an alternative for the grounds to be used or processed, we cannot collect the coffee grounds. You might as well throw them into the regular waste bin. There is a limit to the amount the farms can accept, and we are only just starting to move into larger production of the coffee material.
This is also the reason why we have not started shouting about our services, and clients only find us through word-of-mouth, because we know that there is a limit to what we can process at the moment.
Being based in Singapore, we face many of the same challenges that any business in a high-cost country faces - rental, logistics, manpower, all of which are essential to our core business, are extremely high. The double-edged sword of requiring licences and permits for almost every single part of what we do, is an added challenge we have to face.
Next would be education - all the way from partners, clients to authorities. A1 Environment is currently the only coffee recycler in Singapore with little to no precedence of what we are doing, at the scale we are doing it at. This means there is no set box we fit into, and no predetermined checklist we get when telling the agencies and clients about what we do.
Our business is B2B right now and there are 2 main challenges of recycling with Singapore businesses. One is that many do not see recycling as a priority. Only a handful of clients reach out to us because it is at the core of their business. Coupled with many still having an old mindset where you can get paid for recycling or disposing something that they do not do themselves (the old karang guni system). There is a lot of education to do.
Thankfully, with NEA recently backing food recycling activities in recent years, this has become a lesser occurrence. Education (including national-level and international-level awareness) has helped with letting people understand that one’s waste is something that one has to be responsible for, at both an individual and corporate level. It has helped us explain what we do, and have a lot more client buy-in.
NO ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL APPROACH
What we are doing here might be different in somewhere as close as Johor Bahru, and vice versa.
Take for example compostable coffee cups, which we have been approached about by several companies as they had made a switch to a seemingly more ‘environmentally-friendly’ option. It makes a lot of sense - in theory, but we have no easily accessible composting system here in Singapore. It just adds to costs with no reliable solution (at the moment).
Many researches and developments have been happening in other parts of the world, but we must do our own research and developments, and find out what is applicable where. The limitations are as crucial as the possibilities. It will be slow-moving, but we have to move.
VALUE OF OLD OVER NEW
We have this culture of wanting something sparkling and new. Having something old or upcycled becomes something most would turn away from, or at best a novelty. It is something that costs less than something new. The VALUE of upcycled and recycled items does not match something new, when it should. Innovating on recycling and upcycling often takes more time & more effort than using new materials. This paradigm shift is something that will hopefully happen sooner rather than later.
A circular economy requires more than one player being involved. It is like a connect-the-dots piece. We started out with the concept of not wanting to own or monopolize the whole system. What is important is that it WORKS. And for that, it requires a buy-in from at least one person at every point of the system.
The fact that we have even reached this point, where we have clients, developing a new product, having partners, standing on solid ground and see a path in front of us. It is not perfect, but it sure took a lot of headstrong pushing and convincing of so many people.
I would be happy to help in any waste management advice. I have my partners’ and my experiences to share. It might give you some ideas or help you on your own initiatives.
If there are any possibilities of partnerships or even just information, I would be happy to talk too.
Yen Lyng kindly accepts to answer your questions.
If you need additional insights, you can send her a message