Bubble tea goes sustainable in cross-disciplinary collaboration between LASALLE and Lien Centre for Social Innovation


When Ramya Chandran first moved to Singapore to commence her MA Design studies at LASALLE, bubble tea was one of the first local fads that caught her interest. Hailing from India where plastics had just been banned, the amount of waste produced by bubble tea was eye-opening for her.

“The way it was sold, the intricacies of recycling, the general apathy towards the plastic cup and the rigorous uploads on Instagram—everything kind of stares you in the face once you start working on it! Then it becomes clear that design is the perfect tool to tackle this problem.”

Ramya, along with fellow MA Design students Jayal Ateet Shroff and Omar Faruq Raed Bham, joined forces with Singapore Management University (SMU) students Ishan Singh and Elyza Carbajal on the project #Thirsty4Change. In this collaboration between LASALLE College of the Arts and the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, the six students worked together to come up with innovative solutions to bubble tea’s waste conundrum.

The quantity of plastic used in this multi-billion dollar global industry is only the tip of the iceberg: plastic cups and straws are non-biodegradable and typically end up in oceans, causing severe harm to marine life. Furthermore, these plastics cannot be recycled easily as they contain too much liquid and food waste.

Like Ramya, who saw the impact of small individual decisions adding up after India’s plastics ban, Jayal sees design as a human-centric approach to introducing lasting change. “Waste creation is not only about unsustainable products. It is about decisions made by individuals and communities within a system, and it is this system and its cogs that need to be redesigned to make available sustainable choices, in line with individual interests.”

2. Andreas teaching

Over a six-week workshop at LASALLE led by lecturer Andreas Schlegel, the students collected data through visual documentation, observational studies and mapping techniques. Through their research, they created a design framework around the themes of building a culture of awareness, behaviour, lifestyle and re-education. Initial ideas emerging from the workshop include a self-packing station for users to directly experience and decide how much plastic they actually need, to designing a sustainable and attractive reusable bottle specifically for bubble tea.

Collaborating with SMU undergraduates Ishan and Elyza, with their backgrounds in business and social science, proved to be one of the highlights of the project for the MA Design students. “I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a design project with others from different fields. We were able to gain unique perspectives and viewpoints that weren't influenced purely by design knowledge. I believe this type of cross-disciplinary collaboration is important in finding creative ways to tackle many social problems. It promotes a diversity in engaging with the same issue, which will undoubtedly result in original and innovative solutions,” said Omar.

“One thing that was common for all of us despite our different fields is ideation—we have all been trained to come up with ideas, but this happens differently for each of us based on our educational choices, our experiences, our culture and our age groups. So it was a very interesting mix of elements that came together to tackle an issue which needs a collaborative effort,” echoed Ramya.

3. Culture of awarenessSome of Ramya’s ideas around a culture of awareness

Harah Chon, Lecturer-in-charge, MA Design at LASALLE, agrees with Omar and Ramya on the necessity of collaboration across diverse backgrounds and disciplines. “Design is uniquely positioned to address a wide range of complex issues affecting cultures and societies, but
today’s world presents challenges that are no longer contained within specialised disciplines. We must look to interdisciplinary collaborations to generate new ways of thinking to amplify design methods and processes.”

The long-term hope for this project, shared Harah, would be to expand the collaboration with a major bubble tea retailer in Singapore. In the meantime, Jayal, Ramya and Omar are looking forward to continuing their MA Design journey in the coming semester. For Jayal, whose own research revolves around reducing waste through design, #Thirsty4Change dovetails perfectly with her interests and has sparked new ideas. 

“I hope to further my research by going behind the counter in a few of the bubble tea stores to understand the intricacies of making and serving bubble tea. Maybe a solution might emerge from that experience. I also hope to collaborate more with the Lien Centre for Social Innovation to incorporate their understanding of sustainability in my project,” said Jayal.

Watch this space for updates on #Thirsty4Change!


Updated 2 October 2020
In consultation with Dr Harah Chon, the #thirsty4change team generated their final design proposals, which can be found here. Harah also speaks to the Lien Centre for Social Innovation's Social Space magazine with her final thoughts on the process of research and curbing a culture of excess waste.