Renga Presents The Possible Now Podcast Plus sign Apple logo Spotify logo Google logo
TURN THE LIGHTS OFF
A podcast interview series with the people and businesses who are working towards a better future for us all.
The Possible Now logo
S01E05 Nuha Siddiqui
Jared Hey everyone. Welcome to The Possible Now, a podcast interview series with the people and businesses who are working towards a better future for us all. My name is Jared Henriques and I'm your host this season. I'm the founder of Renga, a brand strategy and design studio in Toronto. Our goal at Renga has been to help our clients become brands that matter.

In order to do this effectively, we felt it was important to better understand what sustainability looks like in practice across different industries. The Possible Now is a front row seat to a series of conversations with business leaders who are solving real world problems with sustainable practices.

We're excited to share our research with you in this way, a better future is possible, and it will take all of us as business leaders, consumers, and citizens to start working towards it.

Today, I'm going to be interviewing Nuha Siddiqui. Nuha is the co founder and CEO of Eco Packers, a startup based in Toronto that is looking to revolutionize how we manufacture single use plastics in a hundred percent ecofriendly and nontoxic way. Nuha is one of those people that doesn't see obstacles. No matter how big the problem is, she seems to be ready to tackle it with a sense of willingness and urgency.

One of my favourite parts of Nuha's story is how she decided to listen first. Rather than trying to disrupt an industry with a new solution, she met the current infrastructure where they were and found a way to bring a sustainable change from within.

So I guess we'll kind of just start off the top and I want to know how lockdown has been with you. I know a lot of the work that you do is involves the lab, and involves being in person, and trying out some of this different stuff.

How has that affected you right now?


Nuha Yeah.

So with Eco Packers, we've been dealing with lockdown since January because one of our operational locations is actually in China. So when this all hit, it was the first thing that we obviously had to deal with. And I think the rest of the world was still a little bit confused about what was going on.

So we had to take a pretty bad hit in the first couple months of the year in China. And we pretty much just had to put everything on hold. Just protect everybody who was working there and make sure everything was okay. And then when things started shifting and North America started going on lockdown, I think at that stage, China was now overcoming everything.

We were in this position where we almost felt like we were experts in this. I hate to say it, but it's just sort of a funny situation to be in because we've pretty much just flipped our strategy. Whatever we did in China, we did in Canada, and then China was making up for any loss of operations here.

So it's been good. It's kind of helped us realize why global operations is so important, even at a startup level to at least have some backup options ready when things like this do happen. So yeah.


Jared Well that's pretty amazing. Not many startups or companies of even your age get to necessarily have that.

So do you want to speak a little bit more on that kind of global positioning? Why you guys went about that and why it's become so important for you?


Nuha Sure.

Eco Packers, we're trying to replace existing plastics. Obviously anyone who knows anything about plastics knows that a lot of it does come from Asia. That's one of the biggest markets for the industry. Being a Canadian startup, we started the company while we were just doing research at University of Toronto. It was very limited in terms of what exposure we really had for this industry. We realized very quickly that in order for us to actually come up with a solution that would be scalable and sustainable for us, we needed to make a pretty big move and try to go in a global market.

That was probably the most challenging at first, but the spot for us to really do that initial proof of concept and the validation that we really needed. So we decided to put things on hold in Canada. As soon as we raised our first round of funding, our team pretty much moved to Asia. Some of us had never even been to China, let alone started business in China. I think it was so important early on to do that because at this stage, we understand that market more than we did a year ago. And it's helped us define our strategies and how we think of our business.


Jared That's great.

I'd love to hear about how you got interested in sustainability and how that kind of transitioned into what you're doing at Eco Packers.


Nuha Yeah.

I think growing up, I was always so fascinated by sustainability, but more so on environmental issues. I always thought of what we were seeing in our environment. And anytime I thought of companies making an impact, automatically you think of a charity or you think of a non for profit. So that was sort of my goal. My dream was always to start my own charity or my non for profit. I think it wasn't until I started school at UofT, and I was in business school, that I realized that there was way more to sustainability and impact than just a charity or a nonprofit. It opened my eyes up to this world of social enterprise, sustainable businesses, and companies doing good.

At first, I didn't think it was realistic because a lot of businesses just say that they're sustainable. All that really means is that there's a CSR element to their company. When you dig deeper into the challenges that we have today in our world, the only way to actually address them is with a sustainable business. I was studying business and then I realized that my passion could be both. They could be environmental issues, it could be business. I decided to do a second degree with environmental economics and it really fit well together for me in finding this business perspective, but an environmental perspective and bringing those two worlds together.

I owe a lot to the education that I had at UofT, but also just exploring options early on and being exposed to things like social enterprises was really important.


Jared That's great. To be honest before doing a bit of research for this podcast, I hadn't really ever heard of environmental economics as a field of study. What exactly is involved in environmental economics?

Nuha Yeah. So it's actually taking what you learn in business and then applying it to different policies with environmental issues. So it's actually looking at all of the challenges that businesses are facing or the negative externalities that businesses have when it comes to our environment, and seeing how to actually control and manage that.

It was crazy because I'd be sitting in a global business class learning about large manufacturing companies, and then going to my environmental economics class and seeing, Oh my God, all that pollution that they're actually emitting. How can we actually control that? What does it take when it comes to taxes or government policies?

So it was really interesting to sort of bring those two together. It is something that added on to my business degree, which is great.


Jared Wow. When you describe it like that, it seems like a pretty natural next step that you got into what you're doing.

So tell us about how Eco Packers really originated and how it came to be.


Nuha So believe it or not, it actually just started as a project in a student university club. So all of us have extracurricular activities that we do in university, and this was something that I joined from day one. It was the social enterprise club. It was just a group of individuals from universities from different degrees coming together to try and solve problems in the world, and come up with a business solution for them.

So during my time at this club, that's where I first learned about social enterprises. I realized that in my second year, I really wanted to start a project of my own. In 2016, whenever we start a new project, we always look at the most trending statistics, the most trending reports on different world issues. In 2016, there was a release from the world economic forum and they had said how by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. And I think that was just one statistic, that myself and a few other team members at that time, we just put up on a whiteboard and then one of our libraries, and we just said, how is this possible with all the innovations that we hear about, we hear about so many different environmental innovations how is this still a statistic of our future? That just doesn't seem realistic. So it started off like that and then I had the ability to put together a really great research team at my university, and we just tried to solve a basic challenge of what plastic pollution currently was doing to our environment.

And styrofoam was one of the biggest culprits at that time. It was something everyone was aware of. So we started off creating a 100% plant based alternative for styrofoam packaging, and it was so safe and so natural that I used to eat the packaging myself to prove to everyone that it was actually ours and it was natural.

And then fast forward a couple of years, we realized that this packaging idea and the science that we had done was really great but how can it actually scale? Like what was our path to bring this forward for the school global issue? That was when we took a step back and we realized that we weren't necessarily exposed to the industry in the right way, and the only way for us to really make a big impact with the product that we have, or the science that we have, was to work with the existing plastic manufacturers that are in the world today.

I think that was probably the biggest shift in our perspective. From thinking like a sustainable company you think that everyone who isn't technically described as a sustainable company is an enemy. You think that you can't go to them to collaborate and work on projects with. For us, when we made that switch and realize that we needed to find a way to work with the existing infrastructure and the existing leaders in the industry in order to even do something of a scalable impact. That was the only way for us to go. So we decided to shift our entire business model. We spent some time in Asia just researching, talking to as many manufacturers as possible. We came up with the 100% compostable alternative for the input to allow existing manufacturers to create single use plastics but in an actual and compostable way.


Jared I absolutely love that part of your story. The willingness to meet the existing infrastructure where it's at, and figure out how do we try and make this work for the better, is the one of the most sustainable ways to actually implement change. If there's one thing that I could think of that is a task that will be the most daunting task, it's let me try and make an alternative for plastic. Let me try and replace plastic in our world. Like that seems like an impossible feat, but what you guys did was actually approached it from a posture of listening and created a new input. Does this mean this input can be applied to any types of plastic, any types of material, is it a very specific kind?

Nuha We're trying to target single use materials just because we see that being the biggest issue with plastics right now in terms of how they're managed. When we look at the market about half of every plastic produced is a single use material, and it's something that we just use for a couple minutes and we throw away unfortunately. So that's been our target.

The goal is to be able to allow every single use material that's ever developed to create it in a 100% nontoxic and a compostable way, which is what we're hoping to provide to our manufacturers.


Jared Yeah. So when I think of some of the benefits of plastic, It's probably primary benefit is its durability and the fact that it does not go away. Its primary benefit is what has made it become such a difficulty for our environment.

How does a hundred percent compostable plastic actually work? Can it really take a water bottle that I have and hold water? Explain that to me.


Nuha Yeah. So you actually make a good point because I think we've realized that we're extremely dependent on plastics in a lot of different aspects of our world. And I think we're not trying to replace some of those amazing materials that are made with plastics, like all of the medical devices that we rely on. There's a lot of dependence on it there, but when it comes to products like single use materials, like cutlery for example, that's a product that we are dependent on. Especially right now, given COVID-19 and safety, and take out, it's just increasingly dependent. When it comes to things like that, it's not something we need to last forever.

It's not something we need to keep in our homes or anything like that for a very long time. So we try to focus on products that truly are something that's reasonable for you and me to be okay with just disposing right away and putting it into a compost bin, rather than those powerful plastic materials, like medical devices and toys and things like that.


Jared That's amazing. So it sounds like you guys are really in the lab a lot and focusing on continuing that line and creating those new offerings. I think the pursuit of replacing a lot of these single use plastics is a noble mission.

Now, when you guys are talking about all these products, is it just Eco Packers is going to start making disposable cutlery? Or are you guys just specifically working with the factories to be an alternative option for those who already run those manufacturing businesses?


Nuha Our goal right now is to be a solution for the industry. I think our goal for our longterm vision is to just make sure that our technology is accessible no matter where we are. And if that means that we're able to supply the residents or supply the inputs to existing infrastructure, to help it reach a lot a lot more individuals than we could do it ourselves. That's something that we would do. We're keeping our options open because we'd love to make sure that our brand and our story is there no matter what. I think we're seeing a lot of manufacturers come to us for guidance on how to navigate through those industry of sustainability. And most of these manufacturers are your traditional plastic manufacturers. So this is all new. But they're just as motivated to launch this new product alongside us, which is really exciting.

Jared That's amazing. I can't believe it's taken me this long to ask it, but what is it made of? When we're talking about a hundred percent compostable, are we talking about plant based product? So if this starts to take on ubiquity, is there enough plant material? Is there enough material? Do you have to now ship plant material from other regions over to China to create this resin? Talk to me a bit about how the business can scale and be sustainable itself.

Nuha Yeah. When we first started off, we were using waste material. So farming waste materials that was our go to supply of raw inputs. We realized that that was not sustainable at all because we were having to rely on this supply of raw inputs that weren't necessarily secure, and on a monthly basis, or anything like that . It just wasn't stable enough for us.

So we realized that the only way that we could actually sustain this as a global business was to make sure that we have a localized strategy when it comes to our raw materials, and we have a sourcing strategy that's actually just using what's already on the market for things like plant food and fertilizers. So they're already in the industry, but they're just not as, as overly used, or utilized. So that's the type of material that we go after, or that we source. It's plant-based byproducts that are already in the market for some sort of use right now. We localize it so that our formulations in China, we source only within China. In Canada, we have a different formulation that utilizes Canadian resources to make sure our environmental footprint is also something to keep in mind, with shipping and transport of all of this.

So it's been something we've evolved over time. It's been a big, big part of what we needed to really reflect on. It's definitely something that keeps changing based on the market and where we are in the world.


Jared Yeah. Wow. That's amazing. I like the idea of it localized.

Making it in Canada, obviously plastic manufacturing in Canada is not a booming industry. So is it that you will make these resins in select areas all around and then they all get brought over to China for the actual manufacturing process? Or how exactly does that work?


Nuha Yeah, right now we're looking at a few different major regions. Asia is one of them, given China, India, and then there's also Japan that's promising. But on the European side as well, there's a lot of markets within Europe, as well as in North America, that do utilize a lot of resins, and they source them within their specific regions.

So we're planning on making sure that we at least have distribution in these major areas so we can supply resins to key manufacturers when they need them. When it comes to our R&D, our R&D headquarters is in Toronto. So that's sort of where we source our materials for.


Jared Got it.

Nuha Yeah.

Jared So you clearly have always thought you were going to start something and it seems like those things that you've dreamed of starting have always had large ambitions. Where does that come from?

Nuha I don't think I've always thought of starting something. I think I thought I would have to work for a long, long time before I could start something. I never thought I would do it right after graduating university. I went to school for business, but I also was studying accounting. So in business school I was studying in accounting, I was specializing in that and I was about to start working full time at an accounting firm right after I graduated. Then I decided that obviously, I didn't want to be an accountant. And I got accepted into a few different Canadian accelerators, like Next Canada and Creative Destruction Lab. So I decided to withdraw my accounting offer and pursue entrepreneurship full time.

My family, I have two older brothers and my dad and there all three of them are actually accountants. I was supposed to be the fourth in my family and I was the only one who didn't. It wasn't part of the plan, but it happened a lot sooner than I thought. And I think everyone gets it now, but it was definitely a challenge at first to convince everyone that I wasn't crazy, and this was definitely something I wanted to do.


Jared That's great.

The question I have with that is with so many accountants in your family, obviously when people talk about impact entrepreneurship and sustainable business, there are many naysayers that say like, you can't actually make money, or you can actually sustain yourself as a business. Not specifically your family, because you don't need to throw them under the bus, but was that a narrative that even your own accounting background was playing loudly in your head around this.


Nuha Yeah, I think it's definitely a part of everyone's sort of decision making process. Obviously it comes down to how can you sustain yourself and build yourself as a career path with entrepreneurship? I think for us, it was myself and my two other co founders at that time, and we had all given ourselves a timeline and we said, if we can't raise funds just like every other startup who's doing it, who may not be a sustainable business, then that means that we just don't have the ability to scale this. I think we gave ourselves a deadline of a year after graduation. If we can't get funds and if we can't get investors to believe in what we do, then we were going to call it quits. But luckily we pushed really, really hard and we were able to secure that funding and get some really great partners in our company at that time. So it helped just reiterate the fact that we're trying to build a company, just as great as any other company, even though it's an environmental driven company.

Jared Yeah that's great.

I think you touched on a great point there, right? Where you're building an amazing company that happens to be just built on the foundations of pursuing sustainability. How do you feel that social enterprise and impact entrepreneurship? The landscape is changing or just even towards the environment and more businesses like yours kind of popping up, is there something that you could give to those who have a similar as ideas of pursuing that?


Nuha Yeah. I think when we started off, we were very social enterprise. We try to classify ourselves. We tried to differentiate ourselves. We called ourselves a social enterprise and then we started realizing that it was putting us into a bucket. It was just isolating us from everyone else. I think we started realizing that there was no need to start calling ourselves a social enterprise or a sustainable business. We were a business, that's all we were. And we were trying to build a company and had an innovative product idea. So as soon as we started taking that away from our company story, and just talking about what we were building, it made a huge difference for us.

And I think that's why we didn't necessarily go after impact investors or impact funds. We went for talk investors and tech funds because we didn't see the need to classify ourselves differently. I think sustainability just becomes a part of your business if it is, and there's no need to classify it differently.


Jared That's great.

Speaking of just classifying sustainability different, because you are so global, have you noticed large differences in terms of when you're talking about, even internally with employees that you're hiring in China or in Canada or across these things like a level of commitment on sustainability, or even just an education on sustainability. We had on this podcast a few guests that are from Northern Europe where it's like, we grew up and everyone knew what sustainability was by age six. I grew up in the Toronto area and that's not necessarily the same thing. I would think almost exclusively the environment, ignoring the people on the profits sides of those. How have you guys handled the perception or education around sustainability globally?


Nuha I don't want to be biased, but I think Canada is doing a pretty great job so far. I think we've definitely seen a lot of differences, especially when we're in Asia. We're seeing a lot of more effort needed to explain what we're doing and classify what we're doing in terms of the fact that it's a compostable product and what it really means.

But I do think there's a lot of positive change that is happening, especially around governments, influencing plastic bans and taking more of a leadership role in that. I'd say the effort we have to make to explain our business is pretty similar. Everywhere we go, we have to take that effort and make sure people really do understand it.

But I'd say in Canada, people just get it a lot quicker versus in Asia. It may take a little bit longer, but I'd say everyone's commitments are pretty similar in the sense that everyone wants to find a solution. They just don't know where to go.


Jared That's great. I'd be curious to hear if there's any brands or companies that are pursuing sustainability or impact that you really admire and that you guys are just appreciating from afar.

Nuha Well off the top of my mind, one of the companies that we're currently working with, AB InBev, they're running a really great sustainability initiative where they're working with startups, like us, and working on all of their aspects of sustainability when it comes to their packaging, when it comes to how they actually source all their byproducts, to the purity of their products.

So they're actually looking at it on a whole big picture, and finding startups to actually collaborate with, which I really admire. I think for a startup like us to be able to work with large brands who really care about this, and have the platform to actually make a difference, is the perfect combination.

And they're doing a really great job with this pilot program right now, and embedding sustainability into their core pillars. So I'd say that's a company that I admire.


Jared Amazing.

I would love to hear from you just different areas in my life, or in the listener's lives, where we may be using single use plastics that we're not actually aware of. What are some different ways that we could actually be a little bit more mindful about the single use plastics and some alternative practices to try and limit that.


Nuha Yeah. Hopefully, in the near future we can have a solution that I can then just list off for you for every single use plastic that you used. But I say, it's the smallest things that you don't notice that really do make a big difference. Even just going to a grocery store. It's crazy when you see the amount of plastic that's used in a grocery store, whether it be just how your food is packaged or the bags that you use to take home.

I think people are doing a really great job of taking reusable bags, but you know, when it comes to things like your produce that you buy in the single use plastics, there's a way that you can purchase, or actually use reusable bags for that too that people don't really realize. But I think it's just the small things that you can do.

Everyone thinks that it's too small of a thing, it won't really make a difference. But we're seeing it make a really big difference. Even if you choose not to use a straw for one of your drinks, it does make a big difference, because you not using it, means you not putting it into a landfill or into an ocean.

I'd say the problem isn't really with consumers. I think it's just the fact that these products are being produced. It's not our fault that it's there for us to use, it's there and we're dependent on it. I think the problem is that it's so easily accessible to us and we just are used to it. That needs to change. The root of the problem really does need to change, which brings us back to why we're pursuing inputs rather than the product itself.


Jared Hmm, I like that. And it's funny, you mentioned the grocery store. I know that the first few times I went grocery shopping with my who's now my wife, she was just putting all the fruit, just right on the cart and wasn't taking any of those bags. And I was just like, what the heck are you doing? Like, you can't do this. And she goes, we're gonna wash it anyways when we get home and I don't need to use all the plastic. And it was such a small, minor thing that blew me away and had me very scared for a while. But I think it's definitely become a good practice.

Nuha The other thing I was thinking about the other day, I was just looking at bread. The tags that get put on bread, you don't even realize, but it's the smallest piece of plastic that gets used. And unfortunately, those are the types of plastics that can't actually be recycled and ended up in our ocean. So I'd say being mindful of the smallest plastics, that those are always not most harmful. With bigger plastic items, you can always try and find a way to recycle them or at least take it into your home and maybe reuse them. But with the smallest piece of plastics, those are probably the worst.

Jared Huh? Yeah. It's as you say that, just a whole flood of them are coming into my mind. Right? Of all these different little things that I never would have thought about.

Nuha You'll spiral. So don't do it. It's a dark place.

Jared I wanted to talk with you about when you said that your social entrepreneur group started looking at some of these different stats and you guys saw the stat of the amount of plastic in the ocean. There was such like a sense of urgency that was brought to you guys. You say, Whoa, like this can't be the case. We need to solve this and we need to think of something to do that, as we've seen during this recent crisis that we've had with COVID, is that the world is not despite impending danger, many parts of the world are not actually that interested in making a difference. Everyone's about convenience and about the way that they want to do it.

What are ways that we can start to educate, and just educate people, and educate industries, and create a sense of urgency around the health of our planet and around the importance of eliminating some of these different types of harmful materials.


Nuha With everything going on right now, I think a lot of organizations and individuals are actually reflecting on it more. And I think if there's silver lining to things, I think that's really something that we're hoping we'll come back stronger after things do get better. I truly believe that it's too big of a problem to do it with just one organization. I think it really does require huge influence from government policies and government organizations collaborating with manufacturers, collaborating with startups like ours, to provide a solution that really does end up being scalable and sustainable.

I think with the government's pushing it. Manufacturers need to know that there is a solution and they're not going to have to compromise on their business. For governments actually impose bands or policies that will truly make a difference. They need to know that there are solutions out there.

So I think there's a lot of collaboration. It needs to be done. And I think that's something we should all be working on. Especially in Canada, we're very fortunate to have opportunities to work with so many businesses and government organizations, but I think there's a lot of work to be done and urgency needs to be coming from the top down, and we need to be taking that and taking action for that.


Jared Do you believe businesses that do not adopt the sustainability mindset are going to be able to survive the future? Do you see the world moving this way?

Nuha Yeah, a hundred percent. I don't think this is going to be a phase. I don't think it's just a part of an environmental phase. I think this is truly where business is headed. And if manufacturers don't choose to adopt this now, then it'll be a lot more challenging for them to come back and try and build back what they had started.

So I think it's so important that people start recognizing that it is the way that we need to move forward. And I don't blame manufacturers for being against this because in the past, sustainable solutions have never been something that's cost effective for a business. It's never been something that's easily compatible with existing infrastructure.

So I do agree that there was a lot of work to be done for the solution side, but it's something that we do need to make sure it's a part of everyone's business moving forward.


Jared Hmm. Oh, I completely agree. And I think what's so admirable about what you guys are doing is really that commitment to building a practical solution that is cost effective and focusing on the inputs with the existing infrastructure. I'm just so excited to see what happens with everything that you guys are up to.

Before we let you go, I'd love to just give you the opportunity to put a little plug in for Eco Packers. If there's anywhere that we can send people to go look for more information, that'd be great.


Nuha Sure we actually are. On Instagram @ecopackersinc. and you can also find us on our website at www.ecopackersinc.ca. We're always looking to collaborate with potential partners, manufacturers, as well as just organizations who really care about sustainability. So if you're interested in learning more or just want to chat a better products, feel free to reach out at any time.

Jared Awesome. I really appreciate this, you taking the time and speaking with us.

Nuha Thanks for having me. It was great chat.

Jared Yeah, no problem. Take care. In our next episode, I'm going to be speaking with Hedvig Alexander. Hedvig is the co founder of Powered By People, a startup that has created a marketplace platform and powerful digital tools to foster buyer confidence in the handmade sector. We're going to be diving into the retail space and exploring topics like traceability, sustainability, and ethically made products.

You can find all the links for everything discussed in this episode, as well as the transcripts for every episode on our website thepossiblenow.com. Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or comments that you have on Twitter or Instagram at the handle @thepossiblenow.