Canada consumes materials, energy, and water at some of the highest rates in the world. Only six per cent of materials entering the Canadian economy come from recycled sources, while almost three-quarters of what we consume is wasted.
What significant opportunities and potential wealth are we throwing away with our waste?
This question invites an important re-think of the traditional “take-make-waste” pattern of consumption, where raw materials are extracted, transformed into products that are used briefly and then thrown away. This “take-make-waste” or linear economy assumes a constant supply of natural resources. Not only does the linear economy place excessive pressure on the ecosystem and its essential services, but it also jeopardizes the supply of materials caused by fluctuating raw material prices, goods scarcity, and geopolitical dependence on materials. Beyond the environmental and economic impacts, waste contributes to social inequalities, such as the disproportionate exposure of marginalized communities to pollution.
In Canada, inexpensive landfilling and the perceived abundance of resources and space has disincentivized a transition away from harmful consumption patterns. The transition away from a linear economy is necessary not only in Canada, but also globally given excessive consumption of resources beyond what the planet can provide. This is compounded by the vulnerability of human and natural systems to the impacts of climate change.
From Linear to Circular
The transition away from the linear economy should bring us towards a circular approach of consuming and using goods, where throwing something away becomes a last resort after all other options have been exhausted. In many governments and businesses around the world, this is referred to as the circular economy.
The circular economy is an alternative framework that is restorative and regenerative by design. Its ultimate purpose is to prevent waste by recovering and reusing products and materials for as long as possible through repairing, reusing, or recycling goods. It is not a not a new approach or framework, but it is in stark contrast with the linear economy where consumption is the only thing separating extraction from disposal. Despite growing public awareness about the harms of over consumption and the linear economy, individual action is insufficient to enact change.
A transition to the circular economy requires widespread systematic changes and cooperation, particularly if the commitments of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperatures, foster climate resilience, and lower greenhouse gases are to be achieved by the over 194 counties that signed this commitment in 2015.
The Role of Municipalities
Municipal governments are key players in this transition as they often forced face-to-face with the negative consequences of the linear economy. Whether through public funds spent on solid waste management, the costs incurred from structural waste such as underutilized buildings, economic costs due to congestion, or health costs due to air and noise pollution, municipalities shoulder the burden of these consequences as they balance competing challenges, including infrastructure investment, economic development, and meeting service needs.
Municipalities are also in an opportunistic position to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. An increasing number of municipalities have already established ambitious visions and strategies to become minimal or zero waste communities. As municipalities build in expectations of climate change, resiliency, and equity we start to see a future that takes sustainability to a more circular and systems-based approach.
The City of Maribor, Slovenia was among one of the first cities in Europe to recognize the potential of a circular economy. In 2018, Maribor developed its Strategy for the Transition to the Circular Economy and formed an institute called WCYCLE to help local utility companies rethink their business models. The institute’s practical results include, among others, a new automated waste sorting plant and a project to create various types of soil from organic waste. In South Korea, Seoul has championed the Sharing City Seoul Project since 2012. Seoul’s policy for becoming a sharing city aims to encourage the private sector to lead the way in exploring different areas for sharing, while the city is endeavoring to create infrastructures for the Sharing City Seoul Project and to promote and support sharing activities that are undertaken by the private sector. These examples demonstrate how municipalities are capitalizing on the transition to a circular economy to leverage co-benefits for communities and stakeholders.
In Canada, municipalities are slowly catching up. For example, York Region’s Integrated Waste Management Master Plan is moving York Region away from the traditional linear model of waste management to a more sustainable circular approach. The plan has a visionary goal of “a world in which nothing goes to waste”. To achieve this, the Region has developed several initiatives that align with a circular approach to waste management including but not limited to the Repair Café, the Lendery, and the Durham York Energy Centre. The Region is also developing a Circular Economy Roadmap to identify opportunities to integrate the circular economy into its operations, programs, and policies.
The City of Guelph and the County of Wellington are also paving the way for circular economies in Canada. Leveraging their strategic location in the heart of Ontario’s Innovation Corridor and one of the most productive agricultural areas in the province, the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington have collaborated to forge Our Food Future, a new circular food ecosystem and Canada’s first food smart community. After winning $10 million through Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, the participating municipalities have developed a comprehensive approach to reinvent how food is produced, distributed, and consumed.
These case studies demonstrate how municipalities are seeking answers to critical questions. They are exploring the hurdles that must be overcome at the municipal level, how businesses and residents can be engaged, and what key benefits emerge from incorporating circular economy principles for all participants involved.
Planning for the circular economy can bring tremendous economic, social, and environmental benefits to local municipalities, businesses, and residents. If municipalities can reduce congestion, eliminate waste, and bring down costs, higher economic productivity and new growth will allow communities to thrive. Local municipalities have a high concentration of resources and talent. They are also centres of innovation. Coupled with a land use planning framework that embraces sustainability, there is ample opportunity for municipalities to implement policies that enable a transition to a circular economy while supporting the integrated needs of communities in the face of economic uncertainty, social inequities, and climate change.
Developing the circular economy is just one of the ways we are helping communities imagine happy, healthy places. Check out our Great Places for Life homepage to learn more.
Nadia Dowhaniuk is a Planner with WSP. If you want to learn more about how WSP can help your municipality implement initiatives to support the circular economy, email Nadia.