In the quest for sustainability, startups in Southeast Asia are using materials technology (material tech) to address recycling challenges in the region. According to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), materials technology involves studying various materials—such as plastics, metals, and ceramics—to understand their properties and use these raw materials to create new applications in different shapes and sizes to deliver specific environmental solutions. 

Statista Research shows that the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is the leading contributor to global waste, accounting for more than half of the world’s plastic production. Moreover, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the leading importer of global plastic waste from the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (E.U.). Malaysia leads the way in importing waste, followed by Vietnam and Indonesia, accounting for over 300,000 metric tons of waste.

ASEAN does not have the best waste disposal methods, making it a significant contributor to environmental pollution. 75% of  waste ends up in open dumps, others in landfills, while incinerators take care of the rest. These methods pollute the soil, water systems, and air. Aside from Singapore, every other country in ASEAN has a recycling rate of less than 50%.

Recycling technologies developed by material tech startups

Many startups are now deploying innovative recycling technologies to deal with the challenges of disposing of complex materials. According to a report in the Guardian newspaper, finding a way to recycle plastics could bring in revenues of over USD 80 billion

Furthermore, large companies are developing plant-based alternatives to petroleum-based plastics, meaning these plant-based ones are no threat to the soil or water system when disposed of properly.

Examples of some of the techniques used include:

  • Genetic engineering to break down chemical compounds.
  • Plastic ink removal through chemical baths.
  • Polymer-breaking technology.

Research firm StartUs Insights identifies several recycling technologies trending in 2023, including:

Mechanical recycling

This method involves using recycling robots to avoid waste contamination, reduce the need for employees by automating operations, and the adoption of artificial intelligence (A.I.) solutions to sort various materials. 

Using these robots increases efficiency, reduces errors, enhances quality control, and cuts operational expenses. Some global companies offer autonomous recycling vehicles that replace local garbage systems.

Waste valorisation

The demand for waste-to-energy (W2E) solutions is high, and waste valorisation solutions help recover raw materials or convert waste into energy. The most common example of this technique is converting organic waste to biogas. 

Waste valorisation ensures that waste is no longer making its way to landfills. According to StartUs, startups using this method enable others to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and save money on energy costs.

Chemical recycling

Sustainability involves finding a way to reuse raw materials; chemical recycling makes this possible. It involves using techniques like pyrolysis—the decomposition of materials through elevated temperatures—to obtain secondary raw materials. 

One example is recycling and reusing textiles to create new threads for the textile industry. Chemical recycling also produces petrochemical alternatives that are useful for other applications.

IoT waste management

The Internet of Things (IoT) offers many solutions, including making waste management more efficient. Startups can use sensors for their trash bins, set up recycling stations, monitor garbage containers, and generate digital reports on waste collection, thereby streamlining waste logistics. 

Recycling companies can understand bin fill levels, notify garbage collectors, and optimise emptying frequency.

Material tech startups in Southeast Asia and their unique approaches to recycling

Regional startups continue to innovate unique solutions to manage waste in the region and protect the environment from garbage patches in the seas and soil and water contamination. 

Here are some examples of material tech currently in use in the region:


Singapore-based Alterpacks turns food waste into biodegradable packages to combat the spread of plastic bags. It also makes food containers using grains—like barley and malt—that other manufacturers have already used. 

It intercepts these grains that are headed to a landfill or set to be used as compost or animal feed and makes containers certified by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Singapore Food Agency (SFA) suitable for contact with food.


Indonesia-based Octopus is a circular economy platform focusing on reusing products to protect the environment. It is a reverse logistics platform enabling manufacturers to track and collect their recyclable and non-recyclable products after use. 

In 2022, the company received USD 5 million to increase its waste collection efforts and expand to other areas.

The sustainability journey involves a commitment to tackling recycling challenges, reducing waste, and ensuring more environmentally-friendly solutions. Startups in Southeast Asia, using material tech and with government support, regional collaboration, public education forums, and investment, can turn waste into economic opportunities and products that are good for mother nature.