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Tembusu Talks: An Interview with Zhen Kun (The Hungry Worms)

Could you introduce yourself and tell us more about The Hungry Worms?

Hi! I am Zhen Kun, an environmental enthusiast and I am currently the head of operations of The Hungry Worms. This project is spearheaded by a team of 4 like-minded individuals who want to make a dent in the food waste problem in Singapore.

As the name implies, The Hungry Worms is all about feeding the worms. We collect food waste from food establishments and feed it to earthworms and black soldier flies (BSF) larvae which then turn the waste into compost. In fact, vermicomposting is nine times more efficient compared to the traditional composting methods.

Meanwhile, we also actively promote the importance of reducing and recycling food waste in the community. We hope to encourage people in starting their home-based vermicomposting kit which reduces household waste. With these initiatives, we hope to contribute to the journey of bringing Singapore to a zero-food waste country.

What inspired you to start this journey?

I met Yu Lin, the other co-founder, at university and we wanted to do something for the environment. We started off by picking up trash on the beaches. Not long after, there were more people joining the movement and we decided to challenge ourselves in looking for an innovative and unique way to save the environment. After doing some research, we noticed the amount of food waste generated daily in Singapore is astounding. There has been increasing media coverage on the food waste issue too, but little was acted upon. So, we came up with the idea to kickstart our vermicomposting journey in the mini garden of an NTU hall - converting the scraps collected from fruit stalls into organic fertiliser.

What was the response when you first started your urban farm in NTU? What were the challenges faced?

We did not know what to expect when we first approached the hall fellow from NTU Hall of Residence 12 regarding this project. To our surprise, he was receptive to our idea. We were given a lovely space in the mini garden where we were also able to enjoy the shade from the trees. Although the space is small, it was sufficient for us at that point in time.

There were many challenges faced at the beginning. Being in an outdoor environment, we had to deal with the unpredictable weather which resulted in multiple failures as the worms tend to ‘escape’ from the unfavourable conditions. Despite all the difficulties faced, our food establishment vendors still gave us full support which encouraged us to keep fighting forward.

Other than NTU, where else do you collect the food waste? Based on your estimation, how much food waste have you recycled?

Today, we have two main streams of food waste: NTU (coffeehouse and fruit stalls) and household waste. The former represents about 80% of the food waste we processed so far. When we first started our project in the NTU garden, we processed about 140 kg of food waste in 8 months.

Currently, The Hungry Worms is running as a social project. As we gained more experience, we are seeing great improvement in handling our operations. In the first six months, we managed to compost more than 200kg of food waste. As we continue to expand our operation, we will reach out to more food industrial players, communities and households. We aim to achieve our target to compost another 500kg of food waste by the end of our one-year anniversary!

What is the compost used for? What are the benefits of using compost?

One of the finished products is vermicompost which can be used as fertiliser in farming and to grow greens at home. In fact, vermicompost-treated soil has better soil compositions, water retention and nutrients are able to hold. It also contains microbial colonies which help to promote the bioavailability of nutrients to the plants. Overall, it helps to encourage plant growth and germination of seeds.

In your opinion, do you think that the educational institutions in Singapore have provided a sufficient support system to promote environmental awareness? How can we play a part in supporting the local green start-ups?

There has been a significant effort made by educational institutions to promote environmental awareness in recent years by incorporating more lesson plans into the curriculum. However, most of the programmes are still heavily focused on theoretical knowledge and lack actionable steps. I think educational institutions should provide more support to green projects or initiatives so that students would be inclined to take the first step and lead the change.

Many local green start-ups are small and often outcompeted by larger organisations. The easiest way to support us is to opt for sustainable local products, even though they may be more expensive. Furthermore, I encourage the public to interact with us on social media and offer help such as collecting and donating food waste.

Could you share with us what is the most fulfilling experience in this journey?

The most fulfilling experience is the learning journey while developing a sustainable composting system for both earthworms and black soldier flies. Our team started with zero experience in this field, so it was extremely difficult at the beginning. We faced headwinds in setting up the system such as difficulties in maintaining the temperature and humidity level which caused multiple failures. We continue to improve our operations and we are still learning. I am very proud of what we have achieved through hard work and persistence.

We are also very glad to meet with our partners or customers who are also interested in the sustainability movement. It was an extremely heart-warming experience as some of them provided constructive ideas and offered to contribute their food waste to us. The supportive environment has helped us to grow faster.

Congratulations on receiving the SG Eco Fund awards! Lastly, would you like to share with us any upcoming projects of The Hungry Worms?

Thank you! As mentioned earlier, we have been focusing on the expansion of our processing capability to cover more food establishments. Our next plan is to host several public workshops which engage and educate the community on the ways of recycling and reducing food waste. The workshops will also teach participants how to set up a home-based vermicompost system and various worm husbandry knowledge. In conjunction with the workshops, we are working to develop a home-composting kit that is easy to operate and requires minimal maintenance. Furthermore, we are also planning to run collection drives for food waste in residential areas. Through these initiatives, we hope that we are able to boost public awareness of the food waste issue in Singapore.


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