This Grey Powder Was A Plastic Bag. Now It's a Valuable Raw Material
Believe it or not this grey powder started its life as a humble plastic bag - just like the kind you use for your shopping. The brains behind this new eco-friendly technology tell you how it works.
They may only be 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair but carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have a huge impact. A powerful conductor of electricity and much stronger than steel, the material has a myriad of uses in rechargeable batteries, high-end electronics, and even some sports products.
But Singapore-based social enterprise BlueRen takes CNTs one step further – by making them eco-friendly. Formerly known as Karboneum, BlueRen’s innovative chemical process treatment turns everyday trash such as plastic bags and empty shampoo bottles into high-value CNTs without releasing any toxic gases and with virtually no carbon footprint. Started by two academics who met at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), BlueRen recently received a DBS Foundation Grant to seed-fund their innovative social enterprise.
Here, founders of the company Wong Chui Ling (right) and Aravind Muthiah talk entrepreneurship, lotus leaves and upcycling.
Has it always been your dream to start your own company?
Chui Ling: Not really. The idea seems far-fetched considering the way I was brought up. However, after getting slowly immersed into the start-up scene, it does not seem so daunting. So, I took the leap of faith.
Aravind: It was while writing Statements of Purpose for applications to universities that I first realised I wanted to use my knowledge of science and technology to serve society. I saw two avenues of service: academia and industry. I preferred industry but found that industry is primarily driven to generate wealth. So I chose an industry that would promote societal well-being through technology while simultaneously generating wealth. This led me to want to start my own company.
How did you come up with the name?
Chui Ling: The name is based on the combination of our vision of pristine water and the lotus flower. Blue is for water, the life force of human beings, and ren is the Japanese word for lotus which represents our ability to overcome challenges in adversity.
Your product takes a waste product and turns it into something useful across many industries. What do your customers say about this eco-friendly aspect of BlueRen?
Aravind: The keyword here is UPCYCLE, not recycle. Recycling usually involves taking low value waste and converting it into a product of similar or lower value. Customers initially view our product as a product of waste recycling and are a bit hesitant due to the vast array of recycling ideas that failed over the past decade. But when they realise that our product is not about recycling but upcycling - where we take low-value waste and convert it to a high-value product, they immediately sit up and take notice. These potential customers are then extremely excited by the concept and are eager to give our product a shot.
Why do you think it’s important to upcycle plastic and why are environmental concerns important to you?
Chui Ling: Being a materials scientist, I believe in the circular economy. As such, no materials should go to waste.
Aravind: A tree is valuable to us because it takes waste CO2 and converts it into invaluable oxygen which supports life. At BlueRen, we are like that tree. With nearly 90% of plastic waste in Singapore just being burnt or buried there is a huge concern as to how our future generations will cope with such massive waste. BlueRen offers a viable alternative to existing solutions and ensures that in the process we enhance waste utilisation and minimize carbon dioxide emissions.
What are your future plans for your social enterprise?
Chui Ling: The challenge is to break the mindset that upcycled products are inferior and expensive. Our target is to work on product development right now and then secure our first customer!
What do you love about working on BlueRen?
Chui Ling: The best part is working on a project that brings value to the general public.
Of course, it is also thrilling to own our very creation and be proud of it.
Aravind: As Chui Ling mentioned earlier, BlueRen means ‘Blue Lotus’. A lotus leaf has a self-cleansing characteristic of shrugging away water droplets and dirt because of a property called superhydrophobicity (water repelling). In a similar fashion, we envision the company will shrug off troubles and overcome problems while blooming like a lotus and making the world a more beautiful place to live in. It is these core values that allow us to invest ourselves in BlueRen.
The DBS Foundation supports social enterprises in Asia with its Social Enterprise Grant Programme as well as through other initiatives and programmes.
If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.
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