The international effort to eliminate plastic pollution on a global scale recently reached a key milestone. On March 2, 2022, representatives from 175 countries endorsed a resolution at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) to negotiate an international, legally-binding agreement to “end plastic pollution” by the end of 2024.
This treaty focused on the root causes, with some comparing the agreement to the milestone UN Paris Agreement from 2015 focused on addressing climate change. The new Plastics Pollution Treaty includes measures that consider the entire lifecycle of plastics, from product design to production to waste management, enabling opportunities to design out waste before it is created.
For many, the focus on eliminating plastic waste and pollution is the gateway to broader conversations on a thriving circular economy as a solution for wide-scale transformation across our current linear industries and supply chains.
Our Current Linear Economy
The linear economy refers to our current economic model where we extract our planet’s finite natural resources, make them into something of use, and then dispose of these resources after use (sometimes after no more than a single use). Of all the resources, products and materials we produce or import into Canada every year, only 6.1% of these materials and resources are cycled back into the economy.
“To add to the negative environmental impacts, the linear economy presents enormous lost economic opportunities from failing to recapture the value of these material resources.“
A significant amount of materials end up dispersed into the environment as unrecoverable waste or pollution – garbage into landfills, plastics into the oceans and carbon dioxide (the waste by-product from burning fossil fuels) into the atmosphere. To add to the negative environmental impacts, the linear economy presents enormous lost economic opportunities from failing to recapture the value of these material resources.
A Circular Economy as the Solution
The circular economy model presents a solution, with actionable business strategies for moving away from our linear economy. The circular economy is underpinned by three key principles:
- Rethink: Reduce resource consumption and design out waste, harmful chemicals, and pollution from products and services.
- Optimize: Keep products and components at their highest value and in use for as long as possible while minimizing material losses.
- Regenerate: Preserve ecosystems and regenerate nature.
In practice, there are five well-established circular business models or strategies that look to capture the full value of resources and eliminate the concept of “waste” across the value chain: circular inputs into supply chains, sharing platforms, products as a service, product life extension and resource recovery.
These strategies are translating to real-world solutions in Canada, with the circular economy growing as a focus nationally over the last several years. Across the country, we are seeing clusters of activity and new initiatives, including battery recycling in BC, advanced recycling technology and infrastructure in Alberta for circular plastics, an aspiring circular food system economy in Ontario and a circular construction lab in Québec.
To be clear, the circular economy is not about an economy that is insular or closed off from the rest of the world, but rather one that looks to strengthen supply chains and extract the maximum value of our goods and resources. The circular economy is about prosperity in a world of finite resources, bending economic activities into harmony with nature so that growth does not result in environmental degradation.
As the circular economy model continues to evolve and be adopted, the benefits to the public and private sectors, as well as to communities at large, are becoming better understood. In addition to the environmental benefits, the circular economy presents new economic and employment opportunities, helps improve resource security, creates more resilient businesses and communities and spurs innovation.
Circular Economy & Climate Action
It is our current linear economy that is, in fact, steering us deeper into our climate change crisis, while also exacerbating other inter-linked environmental crises, including biodiversity loss and environmental pollution.
“ If we continue with business-as-usual, we will emit 65 billion tonnes of GHGs globally in 2030 and can expect to experience a 3- to 6-degree temperature increase over the next decade.”
At present, resource extraction and use account for 70% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If we continue with business-as-usual, we will emit 65 billion tonnes of GHGs globally in 2030 and can expect to experience a 3- to 6-degree temperature increase over the next decade. We need to head toward net-zero, and quickly.
Getting to net-zero requires new approaches for tackling harder-to-reach GHG emissions. Until recently, climate action efforts have largely focused on reducing direct GHG emissions (i.e., Scope 1 and 2 emissions) through approaches such as energy efficiency and fuel switching to renewable and lower-carbon energy options.
As success with these efforts focused on direct emissions leads to a decrease in operational carbon over time, Scope 3 (or indirect) emissions are expected to become an increasingly significant portion of GHG emissions. Embodied carbon emissions are essentially the GHG emissions found in products based on the materials they include, how they were manufactured and transported, how they were used and maintained and how they were disposed of at end of life.
The circular economy model provides solutions for addressing Scope 3 emissions and embodied carbon, with actionable business strategies for helping to tackle the 45% of global GHG emissions that come from how products are manufactured and used. To truly achieve net-zero GHG emissions, there is a need to embrace circular economy principles and strategies across all sectors and supply chains.
What’s Happening on Canada’s Policy Front?
The circular economy as a focus area in Canada has been growing in the last several years. In September 2021, Canada was co-host of the World Circular Economy Forum – the first time the event was held in North America. This major event served as a catalyst for many, resulting in greater interest in the topic by governments, the private sector and a broader group of citizens.
“The Government of Canada has taken a global leadership role in tackling plastic waste,”
The Government of Canada has taken a global leadership role in tackling plastic waste, including through the launch of the Ocean Plastics Charter in 2018 and the Canada-wide Strategy and Action Plan on Zero Plastic Waste (with the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment).
In addition, the federal government has been embedding circular economy considerations into several of its sector strategies, including its draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (currently out for consultation), the Canada Minerals and Metals Plan, its Forest Bioeconomy Framework for Canada and a national strategy for Remanufacturing and Value Retention Processes. It is also looking to bring forward Right to Repair legislation to extend the life of certain electrical goods, requiring them to be repairable for an extended period of time and that manufacturers and retailers make spare parts available for that period.
Provincially, Quebec and British Columbia are out in front, both actively developing circular economy strategies. Many provinces are also moving forward with plans to roll out extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation and programs, shifting the onus from the consumer and local governments back to manufacturers when it comes to recovering the materials in the products and packaging after use.
Local and regional governments have been designing their own zero waste and circular economy plans and strategies. In addition, the National Zero Waste Council, the Recycling Council of Alberta and Recyc Quebec, with funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, have been leading a Circular Cities and Regions Initiative supporting more than two dozen local governments of all sizes across the country in building capacity and developing 5-year plans.
Maximizing the Value of Our Resources and Designing Out Waste
While there are plenty of good news stories in Canada we can point to, efforts are largely small in scale and piecemeal in their approaches. What Canada needs is a circular economy innovation strategy and coordinated action plan that provides a cohesive vision for the future, maximizes the benefits and keeps our industries competitive in this rapidly evolving space.
Systems change is difficult. It will take a coordinated approach and scaled-up investments in collaboration models, knowledge and information sharing and critical infrastructure. Through the work of Circular Economy Leadership Canada (CELC) and the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP), we have been learning by doing. At CPP, we have 90 partners from across the entire plastics value chain working together to tackle the root causes of plastics pollution, guided by a strategic Roadmap to 2025.
I am encouraged by preliminary conversations currently underway about developing a national circular economy strategy which can link to existing initiatives, including Canada’s new Emissions Reduction Plan. We need to be sure this strategy goes beyond the status quo that is focused on waste management and recycling to truly rethink our current linear approaches.
In nature, there is no waste. We can use nature as our model and mentor to design a future for Canada that minimizes inefficiencies and “waste” in all of its forms. We must embrace a regenerative biosphere and a circular technosphere where we store our raw materials during their use phases and then cycle them back for future uses. We must also consider circular economy principles and strategies at different scales – from the product and material level to the company and community level, right up to our global supply chains.
The global circular economy revolution is upon us – and it presents an opportunity for Canada to lead the way.