Building a plastic-free world

Building a plastic-free world

What started as a school research project to create a sustainable alternative to plastic has grown into a burgeoning business.

Where others despair over the climate emergency, Nuha Siddiqui sees a clear path forward. While pursuing a degree in business and environmental economics at the University of Toronto, Siddiqui was struck by a World Economic Forum report projecting that by 2050 there would be more plastic in our oceans than fish. She was determined to find a way to reduce the world’s reliance on single-use plastics — in fact, she made it a research project.

That school project, which began as a way to replace plastic packing peanuts with a sustainable option, became erthos, the cleantech company Siddiqui co-founded in 2018 with plant biologist Kritika Tyagi and chemical engineer Chang Dong.

The startup is pushing further into the production chain to develop a non-toxic, fully compostable resin from biobased ingredients that can be moulded into plastic. “It’s so important to be a little bit impatient, right? I didn’t want to wait 10 years to have that impact,” she says. “I really wanted to find a way to do it now.”

Here, Siddiqui, who was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in the social impact category alongside her co-founder Tyagi, shares her journey from student to cleantech entrepreneur.

Where did the idea to tackle plastic pollution come from?

It started as a research project when I was still a student at the University of Toronto studying business and environmental economics. I started it through a social impact organization at U of T called Enactus. And what we do every year is we explore various social, environmental and economic challenges. I decided to focus on plastics — they are such an everyday part of our life and we never really considered what the impact was for our environment and the planet.

We quickly realized there was a lot of potential to use non-toxic plant-powered alternatives for traditional plastics and find a way to make it truly scalable. So long story short, it was a research project, where I was trying to get away from my accounting and finance courses in a way that felt more aligned with my values. Fast forward to today and it’s my business.

How does erthos source and produce its materials?

Our vision is to create a new standard for sustainable materials — it’s not enough to just be recyclable or biodegradable anymore. We embed sustainability throughout our sourcing methods and make sure we’re not competing with things like food sources or contributing to deforestation. Our inputs are made from biobased ingredients such as agricultural byproducts. And our manufacturing methods are clean, they result in lower carbon, less energy, less water and our materials are ultimately designed for compostability, which is what we feel is the most circular solution that exists today.

What has the response been like? 

Everyone is very aware of the impact of plastics now. With so many governments choosing single-use plastic bans, it comes down to finding the right solution. What’s important is to make sure we’re leveraging existing supply chains and infrastructure. Partners are looking for solutions that can integrate within those instead of having to disrupt it entirely.

That’s one of the benefits of your product: a company who is producing traditional plastics wouldn’t have to overhaul their operations.

Exactly. There is no disruption. It’s a one-for-one replacement.

What were some of the challenges in developing bioplastic?

When we initially started the research project, we were creating these new innovative alternatives. But when it came to scaling it, we realized we had to look at what the end goal would be for it to be truly impactful. And that meant understanding manufacturing systems. We talked to some of our competitors about how we could build a powerful product that could scale and not just become another niche eco-friendly product.

We realized we needed to make sure our materials were designed for industrial scale. We went from a packaging model to a materials platform model. That’s when we started changing our business plan and started attracting a lot more of the partners we have today.

You’ve raised a considerable amount of funding. What’s next?

We’ve raised more than $8 million. And that’s a combination of investment rounds with venture capital firms as well as grants from the Canadian government. This year, we’re commercializing our first product. So we’re getting out to market, working with AB Inbev to produce an alternative to plastic keg caps. And we are expanding our operations into Asia. We currently are headquartered in Canada, and we manufacture here, but we are now planning on increasing capacity and setting up our second facility in Asia.

This idea was outside of your subject area in school. What gave you the confidence to think, “I can do this.”

Maybe it was a little bit of being a naive student. But that outside perspective is also a superpower. Most successful tech companies we’ve seen in the past 10 years have come from leaders who have not been in that industry. It gives you the courage to say, “I can be that person who thinks differently, and actually can come up with a solution that can be impactful.”

Has social impact been something you’ve always been focused on?

As a kid, I held bake sales and donated all the proceeds to charities and I was the president of my high school — I’ve always been driven to make a positive difference in the world. But I thought I’d have to take on a traditional business job, before I could eventually join a non-profit or charity. But then I realized I could prove to the world it’s possible to do good while also building a massive global business by creating a social enterprise.

A lot of people go into the workforce thinking I’ll put in my time, and then I’ll do what I want to do….

It’s so important to be a little bit impatient, right? I didn’t want to wait 10 years to have that impact. With the challenges the world is facing, I really wanted to find a way to do it now.

MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full portrait series here.

Photo credit: Jenna Marie Wakani