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Youths come up with novel vending machine that rents out reusable lunchboxes, cutlery

SINGAPORE — Conscious about the impact he might have on the environment, Mr Mohamad Iyan Danial had set his mind on using reusable containers whenever he needs to “dabao” (a colloquial term for ordering a takeaway) food.

A mock-up of Team ReuseOnly's vending machine.

A mock-up of Team ReuseOnly's vending machine.

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  • Team ReuseOnly is one of five teams selected by OCBC Bank to receive funding for sustainability themed projects
  • Their idea revolves around a vending machine that sells and loans out reusable items such as crockery
  • Users who opt to rent an item can return it to the machine when they are done, and a dishwashing company will have it cleaned
  • A pilot will be held at NUS UTown sometime this year

SINGAPORE — Conscious about the impact he might have on the environment, Mr Mohamad Iyan Danial had set his mind on using reusable containers whenever he needs to “dabao” (a colloquial term for ordering a takeaway) food.

But there was one problem: The 22-year-old National University of Singapore (NUS) communications and new media undergraduate would sometimes forget to take the containers along with him.

To help others get around a scenario like this, Mr Iyan and three fellow members of the aptly named Team ReuseOnly pitched a winning idea, during the recent Sustainability Exchange 2022 youth-mentorship programme, that will allow people to rent reusable items such as food containers through a vending machine.

Once done, the items can be returned to the machine to be cleaned; all this for a nominal fee, said Mr Iyan who spoke to TODAY on behalf of his teammates.

They are:

  • Ms Ooi Zhi Yong, 23, an NUS social work and geography undergraduate
  • Ms Sherlyn Neo Qi Yuen, 23, an NUS biomedical engineering graduate
  • Mr Cheong Yuan Rong, 20, a Singapore Polytechnic banking and finance graduate 

Despite signing up for the programme separately, all four were brought together because they wanted to address the same problem statement: How to encourage the shift from awareness to the adoption of sustainable practices.

Last month, the National Environment Agency said that more solid waste was produced in Singapore last year as the economy recovered, growing from 5.88 million tonnes in 2020 to 6.94 million tonnes in 2021 — an 18 per cent increase.

The authorities have been calling on Singaporeans to adopt more environmentally sustainable practices because at the current rates of waste disposal, Singapore’s only landfill on Pulau Semakau is expected to reach its capacity by 2035.

Team ReuseOnly’s novel concept saw them being one of the five selected from the Sustainability Exchange programme to receive the OCBCCares Environment Fund, which offers financing for ground-up sustainability solutions.

The Sustainability Exchange programme, which just ended its second edition, is organised by EB Impact, the non-profit sister organisation of media company Eco-Business.

OCBC had announced last year that it would commit S$100,000 to support the implementation of the top five winning projects generated from the programme.

Team ReuseOnly expects its total costs for the year, which includes startup and operational expenses, to amount to over S$57,200.

OCBC said it will be working closely with the five teams to review the feasibility of their projects as well as the final budget allocation, which the bank aims to disperse by the end of the year.

Ms Koh Ching Ching, OCBC’s head of group brand and communications, said that as climate change issues become ever more salient, the need for action has become increasingly urgent.

“That’s why this fund supports projects that go beyond raising awareness to directly impacting the environment. We need to rouse everyone to take action now,” she said.

Of the five teams, there was another that similarly pitched an idea involving vending machines.

In essence, instead of dispensing beverages in plastic bottles, this particular vending machine will allow individuals to use their own bottles.

The other three projects range from developing a game simulation – to nudge individuals to adopt green practices – to building a platform to connect like-minded individuals to tackle environmental issues.

Mock-up of the locker for people to return soiled containers.
The Team ReuseOnly members (from left) Mr Cheong Yuan Rong, Mr Mohamad Iyan Danial and Ms Sherlyn Neo, with their mentor Ms Abhiruchi Gadgil. Not pictured here is team member Ooi Zhi Yong.


In explaining his team's proposal, Mr Iyan said that vending machines are “very convenient and accessible”.

“The issue with people not adopting sustainable solutions is because of high costs and inconvenience. People don’t want to adopt things that are out of the way, especially in Singapore, where we lead hectic lives,” he said.

With vending machines positioned just about everywhere, the team thought using these machines to introduce affordably priced reusable products will be a good way to nudge people towards adopting a more sustainable lifestyle.

The team is aiming to put on trial up to five machines at NUS UTown — because the team believes students have a high awareness of sustainability issues and are more likely to depend on vending machines due to their lifestyles — sometime later this year.

The vending machines will have two sets of features: Reusable products for sale which include cotton buds, edible cutlery and cups; and items available to be borrowed such as lunchbox containers and tumblers.

In order to rent an item, the user will first have to download an app and register to be a member. This is not applicable if the user only wishes to purchase items.

There are two tiers of membership.

As an ordinary member, there is no subscription fee, but the user will have to bear with pop-up advertisements in the app, and they will be allowed to borrow reusables only for up to two weeks.

There will also be S$0.20 service fee each time they rent an item, which will go towards dishwashing and operational fees.

Alternatively, users can opt for a S$4 per month subscription to be a pro member to enjoy an advertisement-free app and extend the maximum loan period up to 21 days. There is no service fee.

However, both types of members will have to pay a deposit fee, which varies according to the type of item borrowed, which will be returned once a user drops off the item in a dedicated locker for soiled products.

A late fee of S$5 to S$10 will be imposed if items are not returned by the end of the respective loan duration.

Mr Iyan said users will not need to wash the reusables before they return it, as they will be cleaned by a dishwashing company.

Once the pilot is over, Mr Iyan said they hope to have a “major rollout” sometime next year in areas with high footfall such as the Central Business District, and they will ideally be situated near eateries.

When asked what his motivation was for joining the Sustainability Exchange programme, Mr Iyan said he wanted to be involved in something to “make this world last longer”.

“I feel saddened when I see the world so badly affected by our own (negative) actions,” he said.

Related topics

sustainability vending machine reusable products OCBC

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