By Peggy Smedley
Since the onset of manufacturing, we have steadily depleted our natural resources in an effort to enjoy our modern-day comforts. Now, we are up against the clock as we discover that the linear take-make-waste model has been a colossal failure for the environment. To keep our world livable and thriving, we must move to restorative and regenerative strategies — also known as a circular economy. In a circular economy, we regenerate products and materials and design out waste and pollution. With circularity strategies, we can cut excessive material consumption and emissions and prevent the existential threat to our species.
The Circularity Gap Report 2021 makes the case that if we continue business-as-usual, we will emit 65 billion tonnes of GHGs (greenhouse gas) emissions by 2030. GHG emissions are directly linked to the way we extract, produce, and consume. The report clearly suggests that by altering the way we produce and consume materials and double global circularity, we can make a big impact. More importantly, we can play a significant role in reversing the damage we have already done to the planet’s ecosystem. Think reducing global emissions by 39 per cent by 2032 and reducing total material footprint by 28 per cent by 2032. We can also ensure we steer well below a two-degree temperature rise.
According to the Circularity Gap Report for 2021, to move toward a sustainable environment, we need to double global circularity from 8.6 per cent to 17 per cent. With the right goals, companies will reduce waste, but they will also make money — if done right. That means being more productive and creating a healthier environment along the way as well. Simply, a restorative and regenerative economy has the potential to generate as much as $4.5 trillion by as early as 2030.
We see the movement toward a circular economy speeding up with Canadian companies finding the value of circularity.
Going circular in Canada
Let’s focus on a specific example. Quebec is just 3.5 per cent circular, compared to 8.6 per cent worldwide, but circular economy strategies have the potential to halve Quebec’s yearly resource consumption of 271 million tonnes and double its circularity rate.
- Design circularity in stocks: By implementing interventions focused on using less, cycling more, championing natural lightweight materials and decreasing residential energy use, this scenario can bump the Circularity Metric from 3.5 to 4.4 percent and reduce Quebec’s material footprint by 11 percent to 241.2 million tonnes.
- Prioritize conscious consumables: Eliminating all food waste from farm to fork and reducing the material intensity of fishing and aquaculture through responsible sourcing are a few examples.
- Strive for circular agriculture: Making agricultural production circular by using waste as a resource, consuming less and eliminating waste throughout the supply chain can help move to a more circular agricultural system.
- Leverage government procurement: This scenario would see the government’s public procurement become more circular, prioritizing goods with extended lifetimes and high recycled content.
- Make manufacturing circular: Improvements in manufacturing processes, material substitutions and a commitment to sustainably sourced biomass are crucial.
- Make mobility clean: The scenario proposes reducing the vehicle fleet by championing ride sharing and public transport, traveling less, designing more circular lightweight vehicles, improving the cycling of vehicle components and electrifying transport.
The report also suggests three steps to bridge the circularity gap, including: drive national progress toward circularity forward with metrics and goals; ensure a diverse provincial coalition for action; and strengthen global knowledge and pace toward circularity and consumption reduction.
Canadian circularity by industry
Perhaps one of the biggest opportunities is to look at the opportunities that exist in circularity by industry. Let’s look at two examples.
Case in point: In Canada, construction is one of the most important economic sectors, generating $141 billion in GDP in 2020. At the same time, Canada’s construction sector generates one-third of total solid waste in Canada — equal to more than 4 million tonnes of waste per year, according to a March 2021 study on Circular Economy & the Built Environment Sector in Canada.
Much of the value from these waste materials and resources are currently lost from Canada’s economy at end of life. The circular economy has come to the forefront as a solution for moving away from today’s linear “take-make-waste” economy. The report suggests: embracing circularity in the design stage; fostering education and awareness; enabling cross-sector collaboration; creating supportive policy, incentives, procurement, and regulation; and developing business model, process, supply chain, and technology innovation.
Let’s take a look at an example in a different industry — but with many of the same strategies. In April, the Canadian Energy Research Institute published a new report: Towards a Circular Economy of Plastic Products in Canada, which investigated plastic waste generation and management in Canada and current efforts and challenges facing the advancement of a circular economy for plastics products.
According to the report, the Canadian economy for plastics is mostly linear, where the resources are extracted, then transformed to products, used, and disposed of as waste. A circular economy aims to maximize the value of natural resources and products by reducing, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, recycling, and composting materials or, as a last resort, recovering energy (repurposing) at the end of their lifecycle.
Technology, cited in both studies, can help enable the move to the circular economy in both of these industries. In plastics, for example, some solutions include mechanical recycling technology, chemical recycling technology, physical recycling technology, and molecular recycling technology.
A big takeaway in both reports is that driving a circular economy will demand inputs from all players: producers, consumers, and regulators. We all have a part to play. It’s time that we step up in all industries and make the move from a linear make-take-waste model to a more circular economy, and transition from grey to green. What step will you take today?
Peggy Smedley is an award-winning journalist and technology expert. During her 25-year career she has extensively covered IoT, manufacturing, construction technology, and most recently sustainability, circularity, and resiliency. She is founder and president of Specialty Publishing Media (SPM); editorial director of Constructech and Connected World; radio host of The Peggy Smedley Show, and author of her new book, Sustainable In a Circular World, which follows her first book, Mending Manufacturing (2004). Learn more at sustainablecircularworld.com.
Featured images from Peggy Smedley and Getty Images.