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COLUMN: 'Circular economy' needs a good definition

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 2/19/2021 3:11:00 PM

The concept of ‘circular economy’ is likely to gain some traction in Canada during 2021, in part because the World Circular Economy Forum 2021 (WCEF2021) is scheduled to be held in Toronto from September 13 to 15, 2021, and also because Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson is speaking about a circular economy whenever he has the chance in the lead-up to the WCEF2021. 

One such chance will be the highlevel WCEF+Climate virtual meeting on April 15, 2021. The WCEF+Climate virtual meeting is billed as helping to prepare for upcoming international climate negotiations, and aims to position a circular economy higher on the United Nations Climate Change Conferences and broader international agendas. The objective is also to broaden the circular economy coalition and build bridges between the public and private sectors. 

On the surface it appears that a circular economy is gaining more traction in Europe than in Canada, at least in part because the European Commission and the European Parliament, by a large majority of votes cast, have adopted a New Circular Economy Action Plan as one of the main blocks of the European Green Deal, Europe’s new agenda for sustainable growth. 

Despite there being no universally recognized definition of the term circular economy and no international or domestic standard for qualifying an activity as circular economy, there are numerous activities in Canada that fit at least reasonably well into the circular economy vision, and that could be described by that term if the federal government or another agency wished to compile a directory of Canadian circular economy initiatives. 

Among them are: 

  • Blue Box programs: Canada was a leader in multi-material household recycling when Blue Boxes were introduced in the early 1980s and Canada is still doing better than many countries in the world, though the credibility of its programs could be improved through efforts to achieve greater recovery rates, a greater focus on reducing contamination, and more domestic processing and upcycling of collected materials
  • household organics collection programs: many communities in Canada are collecting and processing household food waste; although not every agency considers composting and anaerobic digestion as fitting under the rubric of circular economy, the respected UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation does define these activities as part of a circular economy — instead of returning the end-of-life material to a factory for recycling, it is processed into a soil amendment and the forces of nature apply themselves to reusing the organics as an input to more food or biomass production
  • the original industrial waste exchange program, started in the 1980s by the Ontario Research Foundation and subsequently taken over by the Ontario Centre for Environmental Technology Advancement (OCETA); during that same period other industrial waste exchanges started up in other provinces; unfortunately, few became economically viable, and have since collapsed, but in recent years new attempts have been made in both Canada and the U.S.A. in this more environmentally efficient area; one worthy of note is the National Industrial Symbiosis Program (NISP) that has been launched in western Canada by Vancouver’s Light House Sustainability Society
  • Product Care Association of Canada is an industry-supported initiative that undertakes recycling of paint, household hazardous waste, light bulbs, and smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in many parts of Canada; Product Care evolved from the organization Paint Care that was founded in Vancouver in the mid-1990s
  • Fielding Environmental claims to be Canada’s largest solvents and glycols recycler, recovering solvent waste from the automotive, coatings, printing, and pharmaceutical industries; it also recycles waste ethylene glycol and waste propylene glycol from aviation de-icing, waste automotive antifreeze, and heat transfer fluid applications
  • recycling of plastics, especially plastic consumer packaging, has been in the spotlight recently because only a small percentage of this material is currently being recycled, but the problem is lack of investment rather than lack of technology; two of several examples are EFS-plastics Inc. in Listowel, Ontario, which has been producing post-consumer polypropylene and polyethylene (both LDPE and HDPE) pellets for new product manufacturing since 2007, and Blue Mountain Plastics in Shelburne, Ontario, which buys mixed plastic bales and other forms of unrefined plastic from municipal recycling programs and businesses; the various types of post-consumer recycled plastic are converted into food containers and beverage bottles
  • the original Environment Canada ECOLOGO program and the Loblaw PC G.R.E.E.N environmentally-preferred product labelling programs that were introduced in 1989 to identify more sustainable products available to Canadian consumers; ECOLOGO is now owned by a US-based organization
  • tire recycling became a particular priority following the Hagersville tire fire in 1990; the majority of tires in Canada are now being recycled at the end of their life, according to the Canadian Association of Tire Recycling Agencies
  • even products as complex as a mattress are now being recycled in Canada: for example, in Vancouver, a local recycler, Canadian Mattress Recycling, dismantles and recycles used mattresses, box springs, and bed frames received from residents and commercial businesses; it claims its facility achieves a recycling rate of close to 100%, representing diversion of almost all the old items they receive from local landfills.

All of the above are among the numerous good examples of what could be described as circular economy activities in Canada though few, if any, label themselves this way. Until there is a recognized international standard that can be used to determine if an activity is indeed ‘circular’ in the sense of being part of a circular economy, it may be wise to use the term cautiously.  Crafting a widely accepted definition should be one of the priorities of the circular economy movement.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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