Meet the sustainability entrepreneurs turning trash to treasure
In this series, NUS News explores how NUS is accelerating sustainability research and education in response to climate change challenges, and harnessing the knowledge and creativity of our people to pave the way to a greener future for all.
Singaporeans are well-known foodies who are willing to queue for an hour just to dig into, say, a perfect bowl of noodles. But they dump lots of food too. Last year, the country discarded 817,000 tonnes of food, a 23 per cent increase from the year before. And that is only part of the mounting waste problem. The total amount of waste generated – which includes paper, plastic, glass and textile – has also risen by 18 per cent in the same period to hit 6,944,000 tonnes.
With Singapore’s only landfill fast filling up, two entrepreneurs from NUS have made it their mission to divert as much waste as they can away from it. Their tactic: turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure.
treatsure: From costly restaurant surpluses to bentos at a bargain
Grilled chicken satay drizzled with peanut sauce, chilled tiger prawns and ondeh ondeh (tapioca rice balls infused with gula melaka, or palm sugar). These dishes are part of a tantalising buffet spread at the Grand Hyatt hotel which, if unfinished, would normally end up in the bin.
But not with food-saving app treatsure. treatsure is a mobile app platform that tackles food wastage by connecting businesses with surplus and sustainable food to consumers at affordable prices. With just a tap of a button, hungry Singaporeans can sample these delectable dishes as “Buffet-in-a-Box” meals.
Not only does this reduce the amount of surplus food that go to waste, it is friendly on wallets too – the bento boxes go for $10 each, a fraction of the buffet price.
“We are in the business of making being sustainable attainable,” said Mr Preston Wong, 30, chief executive officer and co-founder of treatsure.
The NUS alumnus, who studied Law (Class of 2016) and Accountancy (Class of 2013) grew concerned about food waste in 2016 after realising how much expired food his family threw out from the fridge. Then a final-year Law graduate, he set out to study the food and beverage (F&B) market with fellow NUS undergraduate Kenneth Ham, who was majoring in Computing.
Through the NUS Stellar Global Alumni Network, the duo reached out to university seniors who were in the F&B and hospitality industries and had insightful conversations with them about wastage. They found that discarding surplus food was part and parcel of the business, as there were no viable ways to distribute them.
With the guidance of mentors at NUS’ on-campus startup incubator The Hangar, they launched treatsure – based on the philosophy of treating food as treasure – in 2017 to link consumers with eateries and grocers.
Besides allowing consumers to buy food from hotels or restaurants at a steal, it also offers surplus grocery products at a discounted rate, giving them a new lease on life. Such groceries include blemished food items that fall short of cosmetic standards, excess food, or expiring food, which has not yet met its expiration date but is no longer allowed on shelves by retailers.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, treatsure has also introduced a lifestyle category which features more sustainable products, such as reusable cups and bowls that can be used for takeaway food orders.
Today, the app has more than 30,000 users and has saved an estimated 30 tonnes of food from going to waste. The start-up has also been awarded NEA’s Towards Zero Waste Grant and Call for Ideas Grant. The pair are now looking to do more on the education front to nudge people from awareness to adoption.
“Our mission has not ended; it has just started,” said Mr Wong.
Linens N Love Singapore: From unwanted hotel linen to tote bags
Stacks of bedsheets, pillow cases, blankets and towels often lie hidden in storerooms or car parks, banished there because of a coffee stain, pen mark or other minor blemishes. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon practice among hotels.
In an industry where spotless bedding is a must for guests, large amounts of high-quality linens are having their lifespan cut short, leaving hotel operators in a dilemma.
“They want to maintain high standards, yet they don’t want the linens to go to waste,” said Yale-NUS fourth-year undergraduate Rachel Lim. She saw the issue first-hand while doing research for the Hult Prize competition, which challenges young people around the world to solve the planet's most pressing issues.
To tackle the linen wastage problem, her team pitched to bring Linens N Love to Singapore. The student-run non-profit organisation, which was founded in California by her teammate May Wang in 2014, collects discarded linens from hotels and donates them to local shelters.
Their proposal won them first place in the NUS Hult Prize competition in 2019 and placed them among the top seven teams in the regional finals held in Melbourne. But that was just the beginning.
To bring their proposal to life, the team of four went from hotel to hotel, speaking to the management to understand the challenges faced, and to convince them to partner with Linens N Love Singapore. The team also wanted to do more than donate linens to charities.
Ideas such as selling linens or turning them into tapestries were tossed around. “At one point we probably had 30 ideas on the table. We scratched some, or combined parts of different ideas together. We realised that something that sounds stupid at first can pivot to a great idea,” said Rachel, 22, co-founder of Linens N Love Singapore.
Their mentors from the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) Programme helped them to refine their ideas by pointing out potential issues and giving them advice on the ins and outs of managing a business. Through NOC, they were also connected to alumni who ran full-fledged start-ups and could give valuable advice based on their own entrepreneurial journeys.
Today, Linens N Love Singapore saves discarded hotel linens in two ways – either by donating them to charities such as children’s homes and animal shelters, or upcycling them into items such as tote bags, handkerchiefs, shopping bags and coasters which they sell at corporate events. Since 2020, they have repurposed and upcycled 7,614 pieces of linen.
Setting up the Singapore chapter of Linens N Love has made Rachel more conscious of her lifestyle choices.
“Talking to social enterprises has made me think about what else I can do to be more sustainable. I might not be the most sustainable person, but I’m trying,” she said.
This is the fifth instalment of the Greening the Future series on sustainability and climate change.
Read about NUS' key efforts in sustainability research, including Prof Lee Poh Seng’s work on developing alternative liquid cooling systems for heat-producing data centres, and Assoc Prof Yan Ning’s work on ammonia as a clean energy source.