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How this M’sian startup for compostable packaging caught GrabFood’s eye to partner with

Fast-forward another year into the pandemic, the plastic problem is only ever-increasing in the country. To help you gauge the degree of its severity, Malaysians used 148,000 tonnes of plastic packaging for food in 2020.

The good news though, is that local startups have been popping up trying to solve this issue. One example would be Circlepac, which provides greener solutions for takeaway packaging.

Started much earlier in July 2019, Team Recycler is another startup tackling this responsibility to help reduce Malaysia’s plastic packaging issue. 

Today, this sugarcane-based food packaging is one of two exclusive green packaging partners for GrabFood merchants, but Team Recycler didn’t actually start off as a food packaging company. 

A first idea they couldn’t afford

“When we first started in January 2019, we had the idea to provide composting services to the big boys like Nestlé, KFC, Jaya Grocer, and GrabFood to turn food waste into agricultural composts,” Weng Kien and Priya, founders of Team Recycler, shared with Vulcan Post. 

The idea didn’t take off due to the high investment and maintenance costs needed for them to actually make an impact. But as they discussed more with these target clients and realised the ongoing issue with local plastic waste, they made the decision to pivot. 

Supplying to big boys like myBurgerLab and Soft Launch Cafe / Image Credit: myBurgerLab (left) and Soft Launch Cafe (right)

“We spent almost 5 months to plan, source, test market, and execute our eco-friendly food packaging plan. During that time, we have sourced over 100 different packaging products and met with over 10 different manufacturers in China and Taiwan,” they reflected on their R&D process.

Priya and Weng Kien sat through piles of samples and conducted various stress tests with hot water and put them in microwaves and freezers before settling for their current range of OEM sugarcane-based food packaging products.

Plastic reduction, but not yet plastic elimination

Currently, 75% of their product range is sugarcane-based, and they have 30 kinds of products including bowls, trays, clamshell food containers, wooden cutleries, cups, cornstarch straws, etc. The team said the sugarcane-based products break down within 6 months of disposal.

Not all their products are entirely made from biodegradable or compostable materials though, as plastic is still being used for certain containers’ lids and covers. This is because they haven’t yet found a way to replicate plastic’s properties of being lightweight, transparent, and durable that improve some aspects of takeaways and deliveries. 

Editor’s Note: Part of the above paragraph has been edited to reflect a greater accuracy of statements.

We still need plastic-free options for lids and covers / Image Credit: TAF Meals (left) and Mr Wu Taiwan Restaurant (right)

However, Team Recycler does their due diligence in ensuring that those plastics are 100% recyclable hence why they only source PET materials for those.

On the other hand, Circlepac eliminates plastic covers completely, opting to make theirs out of the same material the containers use.

Clinching GrabFood as a partner

The team credits their first-mover advantage as being the reason why they built a partnership with GrabFood in February 2020. Today, their notable clients include The Owls Cafe, Soft Launch Cafe, myBurgerLab, Table & Apron, to name a few.

The merchants on the app can opt to use Team Recycler’s services, and the team shared that they get around 8-10 new customers per month this way.

GrabFood merchants aside, they’ve also worked with non-F&B merchants like Top Catch Fisheries and Misteravo to pack fresh fish and fruits. During the pandemic, they supplied lunchboxes to several quarantine hotels in Klang Valley too. 

“We would say the majority of our customers are still partially using our products, but we are working towards converting them to fully use our products.”

Converting fishmongers and fruit sellers too / Image Credit: Top Catch Fisheries (left) and Misteravo (right)

Halfway to RM1 million in sales revenue

“We invested a considerable amount into our packaging business when we started going all out on May 12, 2020 and were already profitable within nine months,” the duo shared. 

Since then, they said that their monthly revenue has been growing steadily and they’re now halfway to hitting their first RM1 million sales revenue target by December 2021. After that, Penang and Johor are where they’re eyeing for expansion.

While it seems they’ve settled into their operations, Priya and Weng Kien now find that one thing keeping them awake at night is how they’ll have to deal with a surge of demand that has doubled or tripled since the pandemic. Because the prices of raw materials and shipping costs have increased tremendously as well, that’s more to worry about.

“It’s been taking longer to import our products as well due to port congestion and vessel space limit due to the pandemic. Thankfully, we have been able to minimise our buffer stocks and our customers are understanding as well.”

From container to compost in 6 months / Image Credit: Table & Apron (left) and Li Restaurant (right)

Higher minimum order quantity (MOQ) for their products

While there are quite a few players out there in terms of biodegradable packaging, compostable ones are still quite rare, which we so far have only found Circlepac and Team Recycler actively claiming to create.

Did you know: While biodegradable items refer to just any material which breaks down and decomposes in the environment, compostable goods are specifically organic matter which breaks down, the end product having many beneficial uses which include fertilising and improving soil health.

Nature’s Path

Taking their containers for comparison, 100 pieces of a 2-compartment container from Circlepac would cost RM89, while 300 pieces of a 2-compartment container from Team Recycler costs RM318. Doing the maths, one piece from Circlepac costs RM0.89, while one piece from Team Recycler costs RM1.06.

The price difference isn’t too stark, but there does seem to be a difference in the MOQ for their products, with Circlepac’s being lower across the majority of its offerings.

Today, Team Recycler has catered to over 170 hotels, restaurants, cafes, and home-based chefs with their sugarcane-based products, but the team knows that this is just the beginning of their mission.

Like Circlepac, they’re also looking to do a closed-loop composting service (where they pick up the used packaging to be composted) down the road, as well as R&D to turn edible fruit coatings into a product that replaces plastic and wax. 

  • You can learn more about Team Recycler here.
  • You can read about more eco-friendly startups we’ve covered here.

Featured Image Credit: Weng Kien and Priya, founders of Team Recycler

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(UEN 201431998C.)

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