S’porean, 28, founded start-up that converts plastic waste into road material, doesn’t believe in banning plastic – Mothership.SG
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Oh Chu Xian is only 28 years old but already she has founded a promising start-up that could revolutionize a traditionally unsustainable and resource-intensive industry, and earned her name in the Forbes Asia 30 under 30 list.
Magorium was founded by Oh in mid-2019 to convert plastic waste into construction material used to lay roads, also known as bitumen.
The road to where Magorium now stands was bumpy, considering how Oh had to break into the male-dominated industries of construction and waste management.
But after years of hard work and publicity, you could say that Oh is literally paving the way to a more sustainable future.
Grew up playing in factories and construction sites
Oh comes from a family with a background in road construction, and the business has been in the family since his grandfather’s time.
As a young girl, Oh’s father let her and her siblings follow their company’s factories and construction sites where bitumen and other infrastructure materials were made.
It was Oh’s first insight into the immense amount of resources, especially fossil fuels, that are being mined and pumped into building Singapore.
About eight years ago, his father started a project to find alternative sources to fossil fuels.
The intentions of the man were purely economic – prices for crude oil and other fossil fuels are highly volatile, and this ripples down the chain to affect construction companies as well.
As part of the project, the family business worked with external and internal researchers to develop a new technology capable of creating a sustainable and more profitable type of bitumen.
After years of prototyping, they were able to develop NEWBitumen, a road construction material made from plastic waste.
Recognizing the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – filling gaps in the construction and waste management sectors – Oh saw the opportunity to commercialize this technology.
An advantage over other plastic recycling companies
Oh breaks down Magorium’s process of creating NEWBitumen into three simple steps.
Collecting plastic waste and breaking it down chemically in a process known as depolymerization.
Configure the molecules (which previously made up the plastic compounds) into a compound that reproduces that of traditional bitumen.
Catalyze the chemical bond between the different molecules to create NEWBitumen.
A fairly significant advantage of Magorium’s technology over other recycling facilities is that it is able to process various types of plastic indiscriminately.
“Plastic is one of the biggest problems because there are so many factors and so many different types of plastic and additives that go into creating [it].”
Oh explained how plastic recycling works differently in a traditional plastic recycling plant:
“So let’s say [at] a very traditional plastic recycling factory in Indonesia, you have to choose the type of plastic you want to recycle. And let’s say if it’s a PET plastic factory, they can’t accept any other form of plastic, only PET bottles. So even the HDPE bottle cap, they can’t accept the cap that comes with the bottle. And the thing is that even if it’s PET mixed with something else as a complete product, not even a separate product, they can’t accept it either, which means other plastics are considered contaminants. So that’s one of the biggest problems with plastic recycling.”
Magorium is not limited by these constraints since the plastic waste they receive, whatever the type, is finally decomposed by depolymerization and then rebuilt to form the NEW Bitumen.
Eliminating the labor-intensive sorting process of collected plastic waste has also been crucial to reducing costs.
By using plastic waste to create bitumen, Magorium offers an alternative to extracting virgin materials, which is an environmentally destructive process.
Here is a nifty graph to show the comparison between the impacts of traditional bitumen manufacturing and NEWBitumen.
Oh said Magorium is how she and her siblings hope to continue the road-building business, but in a more innovative and sustainable way.
Their ambition is also displayed on their website:
“Our ambition is to create a circular economy for plastic waste that directly fuels responsible urbanization and with minimal waste, reducing pollution through excessive transport, refining and unnecessary cleaning.”
Draw a track
Starting Magorium and convincing people of the viability of the technology was no small feat, however.
Oh reveals that the construction and waste management industries are generally conservative, dominated by men in their 50s and 60s. These businesses are usually family owned, passed down from generation to generation.
Oh, fresh-faced, with his new method, therefore faced some setback.
“For me, going to someone who’s been doing it the longest, who’s enjoying it [from] and me telling them “Oh, you should try a new way of doing something”. People will [either] dismiss me like I don’t know what I’m talking about or they don’t want to change.”
But as Magorium began to receive more publicity, Oh saw a shift in perceptions and increased recognition of his company’s credibility.
Likewise, Oh’s dad wasn’t too convinced at first that his daughter was on her own, but eventually gave his full support.
Impressively enough, Oh was one of 27 Singaporeans to make the Forbes 30 under 30 list in Asia in 2021.
Although it came as a surprise to her, Oh sees this as evidence of the waves she’s making.
“It was really super surprising. Very, very surprising. Because from what I know, [other] founders [on the Forbes list] You know, you’ve been working and developing things and building things for years.
And they’re very impressive and that’s how they came in. But I came in less than a year after Magorium was incorporated, so I thought that was really, really surprising.
But I also saw it as a validation of, you know, the direction I’m moving in and the impact I’m creating.”
Working with community partners
Plastic recycling in Singapore still appears to be in its infancy – only 36,000 tonnes out of the 868,000 tonnes generated in 2020 were recycled, representing a recycling rate of 4%.
Currently, the majority of plastic waste collected by Magorium comes from industrial partners.
However, the company is working with schools such as Temasek Junior College and Yuan Ching High School to run recycling campaigns, which Oh shares she can see expanding beyond the current pilot program.
So far, Magorium has been able to collect a total of 100 kg of plastic waste through these recycling campaigns.
And although the company is only in the pre-commercialization stage, it is currently able to process around 100 kg of plastic waste per day.
Additionally, NEWBitumen has already been used to lay two roads in Singapore – a factory site car park in Tuas and a condominium car park and driveway in Marymount, effectively diverting over 2,500 kg of plastic waste. of incineration.
Banning plastic will have its consequences
Although she has given all of her time and energy to Magorium with the aim of reducing the plastic waste generated, Oh offers an interesting take – she doesn’t think plastics should be banned.
Oh cites plastic bag fees as a positive development, but acknowledges how dependent Singaporeans are on the material, speculating that people are likely to buy plastic bags just to line their bins.
“So while it’s a good move, I feel like there are indirect consequences here and there, you know, that will further mitigate the overall impact that Singapore wants to see when they stop charge for plastic bags and [other disposables].”
Referencing a documentary she watched, Oh notes that the biggest problem with reducing plastic use is that plastic is “just too pretty”.
“You know it has so many advantages that cannot be replaced by any other material in this world. Cut it completely and ignore how good it is [will bring about] other indirect consequences that go with it.
[…] It’s not viable to just say “let’s stop using plastic altogether”, which I think is kind of the message many students get — “let’s just ban plastic“. Why doesn’t the government ban plastic?
But we can’t just ignore all the benefits of plastic and say ‘let’s stop using it altogether’.”
Instead, Oh thinks the most effective way to tackle plastic waste is through technology, like Magorium’s.
She also suggests finding a way to make plastic bags compostable or biodegradable in a short time. Incidentally, this is something scientists at Nanyang Technological University are studying.
Magorium was one of the recipients of the DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant in 2021.
The additional funding helped Magorium increase its capacity and volume, as well as patent its technology.
Their goal is to expand their facility to be able to process 100 tonnes of plastic waste.
Getting there, however, is a huge financial risk, Oh said.
Therefore, the company aims to build a pre-market prototype capable of processing around three to five tons of plastic waste.
This will allow the team to accurately predict and forecast the cost, labor and energy consumption required before expanding the facility.
DBS funding has also supported Magorium in its community and engagement efforts, such as conducting pilot trials of recycling collection at various schools on the island.
Despite all of Oh’s accomplishments, she credits her progress with Magorium to being in the right space at the right time, as a green movement has grown in recent years.
“I think right now, really, the stars have all aligned, the government is pushing private organizations as well as government agencies to go green, to just find ways to recycle plastic.
Yeah, so I felt it wasn’t just the publicity that helped [Magorium]it really was all the stars just aligned.”
This article was made possible with the support of DBS Bank.
Through this partnership, we hope to inspire more people to take small but important steps towards a sustainable lifestyle, and raise awareness among purpose-driven companies and individuals who are paving the way for positive change.
Find out more about DBS Bank’s sustainability initiatives here.
Top photo of DBS/FB and Oh Chu Xian