This Cleantech Startup Is Making Plastic Out Of Agricultural Waste

By Karishma Tulsidas

Erthos co-founder and CTO Chang Dong describes how her company’s plant-based plastic is a game-changer and what it was like to take on a heavily male-dominated industry

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Photo: Getty Images
Cover  Photo: Getty Images

When Chang Dong moved from Canada to China in 2019 to expand Erthos, the cleantech company she had co-founded in 2016, she probably did not expect that it would mark such a turning point in the company’s trajectory. 

She and her co-founders Nuha Siddiqui (CEO) and Kritika Tyagi (head of product) had established Erthos (then known as EcoPackers) while studying at the University of Toronto. Their ambition was to find a solution to plastic waste, and the trio believes that they might have just done so: they’ve re-engineered the structure of plastics to make them compostable in the soil.  

The plastic is made from agricultural waste, “so there’s no burden on our food resources,” says Dong, and can be composted directly and quickly by waste-eating bacteria in the soil. It’s a solution that raises as many accolades as it does eyebrows, as most compostable plastics that are on the market need to be broken down at a landfill, and the manufacturing process is expensive and inefficient.

As a proof of concept, the team has already started pilot projects to commercialise the technology in India, with China and North America as the next destinations.

See also: What Does It Take To Transform Your Business To Be More Eco-Friendly?

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Above  Erthos co-founder and CTO, Chang Dong

As chief technological officer, Dong develops the science behind the technology and is responsible for scaling it up in a quick, cost-efficient and responsible manner. The Gen.T x Credit Suisse Social Impact Awards recipient says, “I actually studied all aspects of plastics first. We understood how to enhance the property of plastics so they can last longer in the environment. I wanted to contribute to the knowledge and experience that I have by transforming the technology and modifying the structure.” 

Today, Erthos is one of the fastest-growing cleantech companies in China. The growth can be attributed to several factors, including Dong’s move as well as the country’s tightening regulations pertaining to climate change. 

Her move to Shenzhen proved to be timely, as it coincided with China’s implementation of strategic green policies to reduce its carbon footprint. The country’s measures are ambitious, especially since it is notoriously the world’s top emitter of greenhouses gases. But Dong remains optimistic, stating that China’s policy-driven economics is beneficial for companies who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. “In 2020, the government published a policy that will forbid single-use plastics within the next five years. That’s when we saw that the market is very favourable, and it helped with our expansion to Asia too.”

The company is also transitioning its research work to China, thanks to the abundance of resources and the speed at which the country operates. 

See also: How These Entrepreneurs Use Tech And The Power Of Connections To Make A Positive Impact

“The original plan [when I first moved to Asia in 2019] was to find a place where we could do fast prototyping with comparative costs to support our technology iterations in Canada. We first landed in Taiwan and Hong Kong, to understand the industry, as these two places were famous manufacturing centres for plastics.

“Interestingly back then, the labour-intensive manufacturing has been transferred to mainland China, which allows fast prototype and iterations of products. This led our way to Shenzhen. In recent years, Shenzhen has made vigorous efforts to build key state laboratories and large-scale scientific facilities with public testing platforms. This greater infrastructure support, where we could gain more support on technology development, is being given to Shenzhen’s technology enterprises and start-ups.” 

Another factor that has contributed to the urgency of finding alternative, plant-based solutions to traditional plastics is the fluctuating prices of crude oil. Dong says, “Fluctuating prices directly impact manufacturing costs of traditional plastics, which means that it’s getting more expensive.” 

There is a lot of doubt about China’s green plan and many experts have expressed their misgivings about the scale of its ambitions (not big enough) and the speed at which they want to achieve their targets (not fast enough). But as Dong puts it, “Tech brings a lot of benefits, but it has two sides to it: the more convenient it becomes, for example, with quick deliveries, it can also be really bad and fill our landfills with plastics.”

Hence, with Erthos, she wants “tech to create innovation and contribute to societal development. I want to bring impact to everyone and motivate more people to join the journey with us”.

See also: Cloud Talk: A Virtual Roundtable With A Plastic Ocean's Craig Leeson

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Photo: Getty Images
Above  Plastics make up an estimated 80 percent of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. According to studies, at least 14 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. (Photo: Getty Images)

Dong became aware of the dangers of plastic pollution during her trips to Thailand as a young adult, where she would see the oceans filled with waste. That triggered her desire to use her education for a greater cause: “That’s the moment that I started to think that we have such incredible technology in this world; why don’t we use it to solve problems that impact the environment and our mother planet?” 

It’s not been an easy journey for the three female co-founders, least of all because the plastics industry is heavily male-dominated. “We have been challenged a lot in the past and it actually bonded us. We wanted to support each other and find the powers within ourselves and be resilient and face any difficulties in the future,” says Dong.

“With any start-up, it’s like making a puzzle—we come together to complete a picture. I have the technology, [Nuha and Kritika] manage the business, so we can combine our skills to make some impact, not just in terms of the technology, but also for women and girls to see that they can pursue whatever they wanted.” 

While Dong does get climate anxiety, she is eager to harvest her passion and build awareness about how replacing a single traditional plastic bottle with a reusable one can take us one step closer to reducing our carbon footprint, and ultimately building an equitable future.

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