Plastic that saves the planet? Startup's novel resin helps industry go green

Nuha Siddiqui was browsing a World Economic Forum report on the future of the plastics industry when she came across an ominous prediction. "It stated that by 2050, there would be more plastic than fish in the ocean," Siddiqui recalls.

That was back in 2016, when Siddiqui was a second-year Rotman Commerce student at the University of Toronto. The grim forecast spurred Siddiqui, who, at the time, was also president of the U of T chapter of global social entrepreneurship network Enactus, to research the plastic industry and figure out where she could have an impact. Four years later, Siddiqui is now CEO of a fast-growing startup that has raised millions of dollars in venture funding and is working with global plastic manufacturing giants to replace their plastic components with a non-toxic eco-resin.

While Ecopackers got its start making non-toxic, biodegradable packing peanuts—hence the name—from agricultural by-products, the company has since expanded its focus to the wider plastics industry.

"We came to realize that the real value of our products wasn't necessarily the packaging or the end products, but the input and the science around what we were doing," Siddiqui says.

The road from packing peanut-producer to plastics input-supplier was navigated with the help of U of T's expansive entrepreneurship network, which is on full display this week as part of the university's annual Entrepreneurship Week event.

Unlike other products made from bioplastics, the biodegradable packing peanuts initially produced by Ecopackers didn't require industrial composting, and were safe enough to compost in the backyard. Siddiqui would even eat them in front of venture capital investors to show how safe and natural they were compared to traditional packing peanuts made from non-biodegradable polymers like Styrofoam.

In 2018, the company graduated from the Canadian government's Next 36 entrepreneurship initiative before joining the Creative Destruction Lab, an international seed-stage accelerator based at U of T's Rotman School of Management. It was then that Siddiqui and fellow Ecopackers co-founders Kritika Tyagi and Chang Dong, decided that focusing on packing peanuts would limit their business and social impact prospects.

Determined to spare no detail in their quest to create a profitable and scalable social enterprise, the Ecopackers team traveled to China to better understand plastics manufacturing and identify opportunities for the industry's eco-friendly transformation. Their idea: create a resin that's functionally similar to materials already used in the plastic industry, but make it fully compostable—so it could replace non-biodegradable polymers like polystyrene and polypropylene in the manufacture of single-use plastic products ranging from cutlery and straws to casings for beer kegs.