Published on 20 Nov 2023

App-lifying sustainable habits

Old habits die hard so nurturing new habits, such as thrifting and recycling, is not easy. To reshape behaviours, two NTU alumni launched mobile apps focused on managing waste. Hear from the founders of iCycle and Sharetings on advocating sustainability.

By Nur Isyana Isaman

Dr Tan Ching Seong (MAE/2006) grew up on Malaysia’s Pangkor Island off the coast of Perak and after completing his studies in Singapore, he returned to his beautiful hometown. In 2013, the island and its picturesque beaches were plagued by a serious waste pollution problem. The islanders were producing more waste than they and their land could handle.

“I started a social campaign for islanders to separate and recycle their waste,” said Dr Tan. “In 2016, we successfully fixed the problem and shut the incinerator on Pangkor Island. This caught the attention of the government, and I was tasked with expanding the campaign to other towns and states in West Malaysia.”

This success prompted him to launch his own business iCycle, which has an online portal and a mobile app named “IoWT” (an abbreviation of “Internet of Waste Things”) that encourages users to track their own waste recycling and rewards them with points that can be redeemed for cash or supermarket vouchers.

Besides being rewarded, app users can track their waste from recycling bins to treatment plants.

Today, iCycle is a multi-national social enterprise with operations across Malaysia, China, Singapore, Thailand, and soon, Nepal.

Dr Tan (first from left) with the iCycle China team. 

Another social entrepreneur, Jonathan How (NBS/2021), shares the sustainability impulse with Dr Tan. He launched a Telegram channel called “SGFreebie” in 2018 when he was a first-year undergraduate at NTU to let people swap and give away functional items.

In 2020, he received funding from NTU CoLab4Good, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) and the South West Community Development Council to expand his initiative and he officially launched the ‘Sharetings’ mobile app.

“Seeing heaps of used items which are still functional being disposed of by people around me in the army camp, university dormitory and my neighbourhood got me thinking,” said Jonathan.

Sharetings operates like a mobile marketplace enabling peer-to-peer transactions and leverages digital technology and community engagement to advocate reusing items instead of disposing of them or buying new ones.

Jonathan (third from left) at an in-person Sharetings event held at Choa Chu Kang.

Saving waste from the landfills

Sharetings has helped to save over 100,000 items, which were given away or swapped among 12,000 users. In 2021, Jonathan received the NEA EcoFriend Award for his environmental efforts.

The 28-year-old business graduate manages Sharetings alone, which required him to transition into a tech-oriented role.

“My journey has been challenging, from engaging app developers to obtaining product validation. My commitment to Sharetings is driven by a passion for community service and social impact, which I think is important in a sustainability-focused, non-profit social enterprise,” said Jonathan.

As for Dr Tan, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering, his passion has always been in research and teaching. He has been juggling his roles as a professor at several universities and as the CEO of iCycle.

“I started with zero knowledge of entrepreneurship and learned along the way. I did not expect to expand rapidly, but I am fortunate to have received support from various authorities. The concept behind our mobile app came from academic research, and our goal remains the same: to help cities solve their waste problems,” said the 50-year-old, who is now based at iCycle China headquarters in Shaoxing city.

The iCycle app has recorded 2.7 million users who have contributed over 5 million waste drop-offs across 6,000 iCycle recycling bins, which accept over 35 categories of recyclable items. 

An iCycle recycling bin in China.

Charting their aspirations

Looking ahead, Jonathan hopes Sharetings will become Singapore’s eco super-app, but the progress has lagged due to insufficient marketing funds. However, he is not disheartened. Jonathan is now pursuing a Master of Science in Information Studies at Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information to gain new knowledge for his role at Sharetings.

Meanwhile, Dr Tan, who leads a team of 420 staff including his NTU juniors from the Robotics Research Centre, is eager to serve at least 50 more countries. His research and development team has been collaborating with the Schools of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Electrical and Electronic Engineering at NTU.

He also plans to officially introduce iConnect, which provides sustainable data connectivity solutions based on his academic findings from the last ten years.

“I believe that the fighting spirit of continuous enhancement carries through many NTU alumni like me. Together, we can work on a common vision to address global environmental challenges,” said Dr Tan.


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