Cover Story: The enzyme solution

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 14, 2019 - October 20, 2019.

Our EcoBalls and GSO Digesters are able to break down the fat and nutrients into water and carbon dioxide. We speed up the decomposition process of the protein cycle. It usually takes two months. We bring it down to three days. - Cheong

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Timcare Biotech Sdn Bhd started out as a timber care-related chemical company, hence the name. During the course of their work, Derek Cheong and his wife Serene Sia encountered many rural farms that were using harsh chemicals to deal with problems such as the unbearable stench of dung from too many animals cramped in close quarters.

They also met a lot of university professors who were engaged in corporate social responsibility projects with these farms. These professors had brought their students to the farms to observe the problems and then come up with simple, environmentally friendly solutions as part of their university projects.

Cheong and Sia were intrigued by the process and felt that this approach — using enzymes and natural processes that mimic nature to address a host of problems related to environmental pollution, from oil-clogged drains and sludge in shrimp farms to dung contamination in the waterways of chicken, cow and pig farms — was the future.

Timcare’s first successful product was Bionic Shrimp, an enzyme for shrimp farms. “One of the biggest forms of pollution in coastal areas is shrimp farming. In China, for instance, a lot of the shrimp farms are being shut down because of this,” says Cheong.

How do these farms pollute? “The fries [baby shrimps] are put into these ponds and they are given high-protein feed. After they have eaten the food, they produce waste and the waste remains in the pond. After three or four months, the prawns are harvested and the sludge at the bottom of the pond is washed out into the sea. The pollution and smell from the sludge is killing the coastal area,” he says.

The husband and wife team came up with something that could tackle this form of pollution — enzymes that eat up waste matter produced by shrimps or prawns. This product, which cleans up the water naturally, has two effects: it arrests the pollution caused by shrimp farms and increases the profitability of the farms because shrimps thrive in clean water. This is a major consideration because many aquaculture farms fail due to the high mortality rate of the livestock.

Most aquaculture farms use chemicals and antibiotics to take care of such issues, which affect the quality of the produce. In fact, about five years ago, locally produced shrimps and prawns were banned in the US and Australia because of the antibiotics and hormones found in the crustaceans.

Timcare has decided to start its own shrimp farm in Banting to test its products, with the ultimate view of inviting regulators from the US and Australia to test the shrimps and see if their harvest meets the requirements of these governments.

“I wanted to exhibit to the farmers that my shrimp farm has no sludge. The enzymes will eat away all the sludge and there is no need to flush waste into the sea,” says Cheong.

“If the enzymes are able to digest all the waste matter, then the shrimps are healthy and there is no mortality. Then, they will be able to grow organic shrimps without compromising on the environment.”

It also supplies Bionic Shrimp to aquaculture farmers in Vietnam, who have embraced the product wholeheartedly.

“The farmers in Vietnam are very much into the enzymes. They produce organic food that is exported and, unlike us, they can export shrimps to the US and Australia,” says Sia.

“That is because, unlike our farmers, they do not use antibiotics or harsh chemicals,” says Cheong.

While the company was developing Bionic Shrimp, it was also looking at how to address the problem of dung contamination in chicken farms. It eventually came up with Farmer Composter, a product that can be used to convert chicken, cow and pig manure into organic fertiliser within 10 days.

“In chicken farms, after they have collected the eggs, they just use an excavator to dig a hole, dump all the manure in there and cover it because they do not want to process the waste. The problem with that is that the dung in the huge hole will slowly seep into our water bridge and contaminate the water,” says Cheong.

Farmer Composter treats the dung and turns it into valuable fertiliser by breaking it down in a much shorter period through the use of specific enzymes. The product has already taken off in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

From managing hygiene levels in farms, the duo turned their attention to a product aimed at hotels and other food and beverage (F&B) establishments — a grease sludge odour digester. “These are enzymes that digest fat, oil and grease (FOG) and turn these into water and carbon dioxide,” says Cheong.

“We developed this product because, if you walk around town, especially near F&B establishments, the drains are smelly, dirty and full of oil. Oftentimes, the rats are larger than the cats around these places.

“If you used chemicals to wash the drains, these would be harsh — not environmentally friendly — and would not digest the fat. And if you just used hot water, you would be transferring the problem somewhere down the line because once the fat cools, it will coagulate again.

“Our EcoBalls and GSO Digesters are able to break down the fat and nutrients into water and carbon dioxide. We speed up the decomposition process of the protein cycle. When oil decomposes, it moves from protein to amino, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, nitrate and, finally, carbon dioxide and water. The whole process usually takes two months. We bring it down to three days.

“And that is not just talk. Dr Ng Chee Guan [deputy vice-chancellor at University of Malaya’s Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences (research and innovation) office] has tested the product.”

Sia adds, “He conducted tests in restaurants that come under the purview of Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) at the end of December 2016. DBKL actually selected six to seven restaurants to run this trial and it was very successful. But somehow, along the way, I do not know what happened, the order did not go through.

“Dr Ng is an environmental scientist who majors in landfills and he actually conducted tests using our product to address this problem of restaurants releasing untreated wastewater into the drainage system.”

The test was labelled “Fat, Oil and Grease Removal by Using Enhanced Lipase Enzymatic Culture, 2018-2018, Timcare Biotechnology Sdn Bhd, and is listed on University of Malaya’s website under Ng’s curriculum vitae.

“He even proposed to the city council to put different coloured stickers (representing the months of the year) on the restaurant to show that they have used EcoBalls in their grease trap for that month. When the officers see the sticker, they do not have to enter the restaurant. He actually did a comprehensive study and implementation, but nothing came of it,” says Cheong.

One set of EcoBalls is priced at RM80 and it is supposed to last for a month. “It is a very cost effective way of tackling the problem,” he says.

In Malaysia, because the enforcement is not strict, restaurant owners were not biting as they felt they were throwing money down the drain. “If I go to a coffee shop and ask them to use this ball so that their wastewater, which goes into the longkang (drain), will not smell, they will say, ‘Why should I waste my money?’” says Cheong.

Sia agrees. “A lot of our customers actually feel they are throwing money into the drain because they do not see any monetary returns. The only way they will do so is if there is enforcement.”

 

Looking for opportunities abroad

Since enforcement in Malaysia is not stringent, they decided to look further afield. They participated in a bi-annual exhibition called Food and Hotel Asia (FHA) in Hong Kong.

Sia says the response was good because the F&B establishments in Hong Kong have a lot of grease trap-related problems. “Over there, the space is very small. So, if the grease builds up in the pipes, the smell actually permeates into the serving area and affects the customers.”

Before Timcare’s Ecoballs and GSO Digesters entered the market, most of the F&B outlets used hot water and chemicals to tackle the problem, says Cheong.

During the FHA exhibition, he and his wife were able to tell the seasoned restaurant owners from the newbies. “The seasoned ones would stop at our booth, look at our pictures [of blocked and then cleared pipes] and say, ‘I need this!’ The new ones [who had not yet experienced the problem] would just walk by,” says Cheong.

Timcare even managed to get into Paris and London. Sia had googled “Grease trap suppliers in Paris” and found a company. Although she did not speak French, she sent the contact person an email in English.

“He replied within an hour and I was like, ‘Whoa! I did not expect such a quick response. From there, we corresponded and I sent samples over. He tried our product and after about a month of communication, he placed an order for about 200 packs [each pack contains four EcoBalls],” she says.

“In Paris, there are a lot of cafés and old buildings. Parisians are very particular about smell. When you put this product into grease boxes, there is no smell. And a side effect is that it also kills pests such as cockroaches, which tend to gather around a grease box,” says Cheong.

The grease trap manufacturer in Paris sells the product as an optional add-on. “He started at the end of December. So, it has only been a few months,” says Sia.

“But we needed more coverage. So, I told Serene [Sia] that maybe we should go to Paris to do a show,” says Cheong.

They got into London in the same way. “The continuous fat that disappears down the pipes in London has started to coagulate and block up the entire underpass or waterway. This is what they call the fatberg,” he says.

Like before, Sia wrote to a grease trap manufacturer in the country and sent over samples of Timcare’s products for the company to try. “We did this last year and they were amazed by the results. They think our product has potential to tackle the fatberg. But again, it takes time to build up the market and educate customers,” she says.

How does Timcare use enzymes to tackle these problems? By looking at what is used in our bodies to break down things like fat and proteins. “In our bodies, we use lipase to digest fats, protease to digest proteins and amylase to digest carbohydrates,” Sia explains.

“So, we looked for lipase and protease sources. The professors guided us to the right raw materials and even what specifications to look for,” Cheong adds.

This was how they developed all their products. What is ironic is that Cheong is an engineer while Sia studied business at university. Neither of them had any expertise in biology, but that did not stop them when they identified a need in the market and set about developing products.

In addition to Bionic Shrimp, EcoBalls and GSO Digesters, they also produce a NanoShield spray, which is capable of destroying 3,000 species of bacteria and viruses. It is also anti-fungal and anti-viral in nature. The product is especially popular in kindergartens, where it is sprayed industrial style in common areas and on items such as toys and desks, or parents spray it on their children (and themselves).

In the Philippines, Timcare has teamed up with a company called Biocare, which deals in government projects. “Our EcoBalls and GSO Digesters were used to clean Boracay Island when it was shut down for six months. At the time, the waste from the septic tank was shooting out to sea. It had been happening for many years but eventually, the problem got so bad that you could actually smell the fecal matter during low tide,” says Cheong.

“But our product eats fecal matter and turns it into water,” Sia adds.

Timcare has also penetrated the Singapore market. “We sell our GSO Digesters to the Singapore government. We even received a green label certification from there. It cost us S$16,000 for that paper. But if you do not have it, you cannot sell to the government. We waited two years for that certificate, but it has been worth it,” says Cheong.

One of the company’s products — the Cockroach, Mosquito and Odour Remover — appeared on a segment of Channel News Asia in May 2017 when the Member of Parliament for Tampines decided to switch from the conventional pest removal method to this more organic one. “Singapore is very clean and the enforcement is very strict,” Sia points out.

In Malaysia, the company has not managed to break into the government market. So, it sells its products to private companies such as the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, Marriott Hotels, Four Square and Palm Gardens.

While waiting for its environmentally friendly solutions to catch on, the company survived on income from its original business, timber care. “We actually started with chemicals for the treatment of timber. Then, we developed Bionic Shrimp, EcoBalls, GSO Digesters and other products. But for the longest time, our income came from timber care,” says Sia.

“Actually, the enzyme business only picked up, in terms of momentum and knowledge, seven to eight years ago. Before that nobody really understood or heard of enzymes,” says Cheong.

Sia adds, “I was pretty surprised about that. After all, our body is full of enzymes.”

 

Dealing with food waste

Food waste accounts for 50% of all waste and most of it ends up in landfills, generating methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat within the atmosphere.

Timcare Biotech Sdn Bhd is collaborating with Dr Ng Chee Guan, a post-doctoral research fellow at University of Malaya’s (UM) Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, to do something about it. Ng, whose post-doctoral work was in life cycle assessment of food waste management, says his team will initiate a food recycling programme targeted at restaurants and hotels that ultimately turns food waste into proteins.

“There are three sources of food waste — food preparation waste, post-consumer food waste and grease trap waste. We are looking to secure the waste from grease traps,” he tells Enterprise at an interview at UM’s Zero Waste campaign headquarters in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Ng points out that most companies looking to recycle food waste or turn it into compost or animal feed target waste from food preparation, usually the peelings or heads or tails of vegetables or animals that have been cut off, because this is considered high quality food waste. “This is useful to feed earthworms or insects, which can be converted into proteins. It is even useful in making compost,” he says.

Post-consumer food waste has the lowest value of the three sources because of the presence of disposable spoons and forks, which cannot go into composting machines. “If we really want to recover post-consumer food waste, the workers have to separate it, putting aside the napkins or disposable cutlery,” says Ng.

But what interests him the most are the grease traps. “Grease traps contain grease cakes, which are high in calorific value. That means it has a lot of nutrients, which is good for composting or as feed for black soldier flies, which can be turned into a source of protein for poultry,” he says.

But first, Ng wants the authorities to address the problem of grease traps. For starters, although it is a requirement for food and beverage establishments to install a grease trap, there are no regulations as to the size of it and no inspections to see if it is used properly.

“The first problem is restaurants not using their grease traps. They install it simply to get the licence. The second is that grease trap design is not standardised in Malaysia and most restaurant buy traps that are too small for their operations because these are cheaper. Third, there are no best management practices for cleaning out these traps. The effluents from these traps end up in the drain,” says Ng.

This is the problem he is trying to address. “We want to introduce Timcare’s enzyme balls into the grease traps. At the same time, we want to train hawkers how to use the traps properly. We also want to produce a document on best management practices such as the grease trap sizes must be standardised based on specific calculations. For instance, for a restaurant running 24 hours a day, what is the minimum size of grease trap you must install?”

Right now, having a grease trap is a condition of the licence for a food and beverage establishment. But it goes no further than that. “It never specifies how large the grease trap has to be if you are a 24-hour establishment or you have a particular customer size,” says Ng.

Another problem is how these traps are cleaned. “A lot of contractors use pumps to de-sludge the grease trap and pump out all the water. This is wrong. The grease trap uses the principle of different densities. This means that when it is filled, the oil — which is less dense — floats to the top while the sludge — which is dense — goes to the bottom,” he says.

“What remains in the middle is the cleaner water and only this water can be allowed to go out. The top and bottom layers should be scooped out by the owner. You have to do it this way so that the trap serves its purpose.”

Ng says they want to initiate a programme, starting with the hawker centre in Petaling Jaya’s SS2. “It already has the Smart PJ Waste Solution Lab, which is also deploying the anaerobic digester machine there. We hope to complement the project and warm up the hawkers’ motivation to actually take up their food waste, not only from preparation and post-consumer but also from their grease traps as well.”

Ultimately, it will mean fewer rats and cockroaches in the drains. “If all the fat, oil and grease is recovered, the drains will be less smelly. There will be fewer cockroaches and rats because there will be less grease and food waste going into the drains,” he says.