The Economy of Tomorrow: Canada’s Circular Economy

2021-04-03

 |  The Starfish

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

  • First Nations proverb

As Canada’s Indigenous peoples have known for centuries, it is our duty to sustain Earth’s finite resources for the next generations of life. Toxic pollution, deforestation, artificially-enhanced crops, and—most importantly—a lack of environmental stewardship are factors that diminish the limited supply we have. Fortunately, people are beginning to realize the urgency of the situation and that the answer to all these problems lies in our economy and unsustainable production systems.  

What is a circular economy?

First conceived in 1976 by architect and industrial analyst, Walter Stahel, the circular economy is a revolutionary system whereby, in theory, the lifespans of Earth’s finite resources are extended infinitely. After raw materials are manufactured into products and used, they are repaired then redistributed for multiple cycles of reuse. At the end of their reusable lifetimes, they are recycled back into raw materials to run through this continuous cycle once again.

The traditional ‘take-make-waste’ economy (left) v.s. the emerging circular economy (right). Visual created by Catherine Weetman/Wikimedia Commons.

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At the heart of this conversation: plastics

Plastics are at the core of the latest research and development to advance the circular economy. At mechanical recycling (also known as physical recycling) plants, plastics are broken down into plastic pellets to be reused. Although the process may seem straightforward, plastics must be sorted into different grades (e.g. PET, PS, HDPE and LDPE) before they can be recycled, and the majority of commercial plastics can only be mechanically recycled once or twice. On the contrary, chemical recycling (also known as industrial recycling) decomposes assorted grades of plastic into their virgin oil forms to be made into new plastic—without compromising quality. While this concept is relatively new, over 30 companies worldwide have capitalized on this opportunity by developing economically viable chemical recycling approaches. Many Canadian companies have established themselves as frontrunners in the circular economy, developing state-of-the-art technologies to close the loop in the plastics industry: Renewlogy, GreenMantra, Loop Industries, and Pyrowave are in the process of constructing pyrolysis plants—facilities that chemically recycle plastic by melting it at high temperatures.

Canada’s circular targets

Although mechanical recycling services are widely available in Canada, and chemical recycling rapidly emerging, nearly 86% of all consumer plastics in Canada still end up in the landfill, while only 9% are recycled. However, the Canadian chemical industry has announced ambitious action plans to combat this statistic. By 2040, the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA) and the Chemical Industry Association of Canada (CIAC) aim to ensure that 100% of plastic packaging in Canada can be reused, recycled, or recovered. Similarly, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW)—a coalition of oil and plastic companies including Shell, Dow, BASF, and NOVA Chemicals—has committed over 1 billion USD towards building an effective circular economy.

Big brands drive change

A number of big brands in Canada and around the world have joined the circular economy revolution by integrating circular micro-economies into their operations. Nike has invested in improving the sustainability of their supply chain and reducing waste, manufacturing over 70% of their footwear from recycled materials. Patagonia has invested in service centers globally to extend its products’ longevity and contribute 1% of their profits to environmental nonprofits. Ontario-based TAMGA Designs crafts their clothing from micro TENCEL, a biodegradable textile that uses less energy and water to produce than cotton. Similarly, British Columbian company Nelson Naturals’ original toothpaste tablets have diverted 60,000 plastic tubes from the landfill. Local Toronto-based businesses contributing to Canada’s circular economy include the Tiny Toy Company, Feed It Forward, and Free Geek Toronto, who collect and redistribute used toys, unwanted food, and damaged electronics respectively.

Success in Europe

The circular economy began to find its place in Europe back in 2015, when the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan was launched, which outlined their 54 initiatives for sustainable production, consumption, and waste management. By 2016, four million people were employed in positions related to the circular economy, €147 billion of revenue was generated from circular activities, and carbon dioxide emissions were considerably reduced. Chemical Recycling Europe was formed in 2019; an alliance of chemical recycling companies working towards mainstreaming these services within the EU. Notable are Plastic Energy in the United Kingdom and Ioniqa Technologies in the Netherlands. The success in Europe can be a representation for the environmentally-conscious future that Canadians are working towards today.

A parting word… 

The era of linear, ‘take-make-waste’ economics in Canada is ending as society shifts towards a circular economy. Businesses are developing cost-effective, sustainable technologies to meet consumer demand and preserve Earth’s finite resources, while the government has set circular objectives for the years ahead. Regardless, one of the most critical players in the equation is you. Small actions, such as giving a tin can a second life as a pencil holder, or responsibly sorting waste before disposal, when taken by all Canadians, can significantly advance Canada’s circular interests. 

A future of environmental and economic prosperity awaits you.

Welcome to the economy of tomorrow.