A wide-eyed girl running around construction sites is quite unusual. But that was how Oh Chu Xian spent her weekends while bonding with her father and grandfather, who were busy with their construction business that supplied aggregates for roads and buildings. During their free time, her grandparents and she would go around feeding the stray dogs at the sites; they even adopted two of them.
Being so close to her dad at work, the now 28-year-old knew he had two major concerns. Firstly, mining for a finite amount of aggregates was not sustainable. Second, refining crude oil that was necessary for bitumen was terrible for the environment. Four years ago, Oh and her dad upgraded the laboratory in his factory to conduct in- depth research on incorporating plastic wastes in road technology.
In the UK and US, authorities pave the roads with plastic- suffused asphalt. Plastic helps reduce the amount of petroleum used. But what happens at the end of its life? “Previous methods were not effective solutions. They used contaminated plastic such as greasy plastic, so paved roads degraded quickly,” explains Oh.
The chemical process she developed with researchers solved this problem. It broke plastic down to the molecular level so that it no longer was a polymer. “We don’t have to clean or sort it any more as our processes can handle the contamination. Depolymerising it means that it’s not even plastic any more. This is important for Singapore because we cannot afford the labour-intensive processes of sorting and cleaning plastics.”
NEWBitumen, the third-generation prototype of the innovative synthetic new material, is ready to be commercialised. The final-year Singapore Management University business management student has a plan for the dual function material: to keep recycling previously unrecyclable plastics for more sustainable road construction. In the next three years, Oh hopes to divert at least 30 to 40 per cent of plastic waste to the production of NEWBitumen, a ten-fold increase from four per cent now.
In five years, Oh hopes to have a customisable model that can be exported to other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. The material can be recycled infinite times, creating a circular economy. Oh isn’t just stopping there. She wants to conduct more research to expand NEWBitumen’s usage and cites waterproofing as a possibility. It sounds rosy now but the past seven years have not been easy.
To get funding, she joined the inaugural waste-tech start-up competition WASTE 20/20 and emerged the grand winner. Organised by Startup X in partnership with Enterprise Singapore and The Incubation Network, alongside large waste management corporations in Singapore, the competition provided innovations in Asia with funding and a support system. What pushed her on when things became challenging was her favourite movie, Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.
It was about how a young woman and an accountant had to discover the “magic” within themselves to take over a magical emporium of toys and keep that flowing. Every time she needed motivation, Oh would rewatch it. Naturally, when she incorporated her deep-tech startup in 2019, she named it Magorium. Oh found her calling when she watched an animal documentary about birds mistakenly feeding plastic waste to their offspring, killing them. It moved the animal lover so much that she decided she needed to find a solution to plastic waste.
“Environmental accountability should be on everyone’s mind. No one can continue to operate at the environment’s expense.” She believes innovation is key to continuing the family legacy and, in spite of her difficult journey, also encourages anyone who wants to change the world to forge ahead fearlessly. “If you think there are problems to be solved, be the one to do it. Don’t wait for others.”