If there’s one thing we take for granted most about an everyday cup of coffee, it’s the paper cup; it’s supposed to be environmentally safe, after all. Imagine, however, one paper cup for each person who buys at least one coffee everyday—that’s a lot of waste.
More than the volume, a major cause for concern is that paper cups aren’t just made of paper, note fresh college graduates Czaesar Emil Callo, Mary Kathleen Chan and Eduard Edwynne Capacio. In that cup is a thin, unnoticeable plastic lining, which takes around 100 years to fully biodegrade—something these three plan to change.
Callo, Chan and Capacio call themselves the Team Sing Terns, winner of the business plan-writing competition HSBC Young Entrepreneur Awards’ (YEA) regional finals held June 20 in HSBC Hong Kong. The competition is now on its 11th year.
Sing Terns’ winning business proposal, ECOntainer, aims to create a more biodegradable plastic-like substance made from polylactic acid (PLA) extracted from corn cobs, which can ultimately supplant present plastic food container linings that still pose a threat to the environment.
They received the Best of the Best Award, which won them an HSBC business development fund of HK$100,000. That’s in addition to the P300,000 and week-long study tour in HK they received for bagging the Gold Award in the local HSBC YEA competition last March 16.
The three bested six other countries in the regional finals: Bangladesh, Brunei, HK, Malaysia, Shanghai and Thailand.
Bangladesh took home the Diamond Award (second place) and HK$40,000 for their CocoCrete, concrete made from coconut husks’ coir fibers. Thailand won third and received the Jade Award and HK$20,000 for their Heart & Sole Convertible Heels, high heels which height can be adjusted.
Callo, a Business Administration graduate of University of the Philippines Diliman, and Chan and Capacio, both Managment Engineering graduates of Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), met in 2010 while doing their internship in Procter & Gamble in Singapore (hence the team name Sing Terns).
Chan says the idea of creating an alternative paper cup came to them when they saw how much of a liability the cups pose to a local coffee chain.
“We got really curious and researched about it, and we found out about polylactic acid. What’s difficult is it’s expensive. Currently, it’s produced from sugar cane bagasse,” said Chan. “Another raw material source is corn kernel, which, again, is very expensive. We found that even though it produces a lower yield of polylactic acid, you can actually extract it from corn cobs.”
Part of Sing Terns’ winnings will go to creating a prototype, which is yet to be produced by the ADMU Chemistry department. Sing Terns have officially partnered with them to come up with the most efficient way to create the ECOntainer.
The team eventually plans to set up operations in Isabela, the country’s top corn-producing province.
“What we’ll do is collect agricultural waste and convert it into something that would make the plastic in food containers biodegrade in 100 days, faster than how regular plastic would, which is 100 years,” said Capacio.
“It’s not just biodegradable, it’s also compostable,” added Callo.
The final business plan Sing Terns presented in the June 20 finals was actually a far cry from the proposal they started with, said Rudy Ang, dean of Ateneo’s John Gokongwei School of Management and the team’s mentor. Their initial plan was to produce both paper cups and the PLA lining.
After consulting with other professors, Ang and Sing Terns realized that they needed to streamline their proposal—instead of competing with numerous paper- and cup-manufacturing companies, just partner with them and concentrate production on PLA, something which they had more control over.
Sing Terns plans to start with coffee companies because, aside from the drink’s popularity here in the country, customers of coffee shops are “more environmentally conscious and less price-sensitive.” One coffee shop they’ve approached is Bo’s Coffee, which, the team says, has expressed enthusiasm for their planned product.
“It was a very thorough presentation,” praised chair of the judging panel Teresa Au, HSBC Asia Pacific head of Corporate Sustainability, during the question-and-answer portion of the competition.
“I can totally see their business plan happening,” said another judge, Hong Kong Sports Institute chair Eric Li.
Coffee cups, of course, are just the beginning. Eventually, Chan, Callo and Capacio aim to replace all plastic, plastic-lined and Styrofoam food containers with their PLA-based ECOntainer.
As Chan cheered while raising their winning trophy: “Let’s change the world, one ECOntainer at a time!”