May 20, 2022

Lessons from North America: How Toronto is going circular

By Claudia Alessio (Circle Economy) and Yannick Beaudoin (David Suzuki Foundation)

The transition to a circular economy is a global opportunity that can be leveraged by economies across the planet. The potential of countries like Canada to drive a global move to more circular and regenerative economies is clear, given its economic clout, investment capacity, abundance of natural resources and a desire to significantly reduce its environmental footprint. 

According to the World Bank's What a Waste global database, Canada is the highest per capita producer of material waste and is the seventh highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases. However, waste reduction, enhanced recycling, sustainable consumption and production and more recently circular economy strategies have been part of federal, provincial and municipal efforts and policies for decades. There is momentum and opportunity across Canada to accelerate efforts to decouple economic growth from material consumption and drive down both emissions and waste generation. 

This momentum is particularly strong at the local level, with several Canadian cities increasing their efforts to reduce waste and encourage circular, sustainable consumption. Such efforts are also helping inspire and, in some cases, drive action at higher levels of government from influencing fiscal investments, to regulating problem materials like plastics, to enhancing building and energy standards.

This article will present what lessons can be learnt from how Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, is continuing its long-standing waste reduction efforts by undertaking research and analysis and multi-sectoral partnerships and collaboration. 

In order to inform deeper, more systemic shifts that could open up solution pathways that can help increase circularity and sustainability, the City of Toronto took a snapshot the current state of some aspects of its material flows by asking these key questions:

  • What is the current context for circularity in Toronto?
  • Which sectors have the greatest potential for circular economy impact?
  • How are materials being consumed and disposed of in key sectors?
  • What are the key considerations moving forward? 

To tackle these questions, the City of Toronto worked with Circle Economy and the David Suzuki Foundation to conduct a study – Baselining for a Circular Toronto – throughout 2020 and 2021. 

The study identified three material sectors as possible priority areas for circular innovation. These sectors could become the focus of innovative strategies that might lead the way in further reducing Toronto’s material footprint. The sectors that made up the focus of the baselining study were: construction, food systems and waste management. 

Toronto: a city of grassroots action turning climate and waste challenges into action

Toronto is growing fast—both in terms of population and economy. If no action is taken to transform the current consumption patterns of the city, its environmental impact will inevitably continue to exceed the regenerative capacity of both local and more distant natural systems. This is why shifting how all economic actors in Toronto utilise finite material resources from linear to circular approaches could be so beneficial: it can enable Toronto to thrive socially and economically, while living within the boundaries of our planet. 

Toronto, and cities around the world, have a significant opportunity and ability to drive systemic changes that could transform society’s relationship to the environment from one that is extractive to one that is regenerative. Circular economy thinking offers a pathway to inspire. When supported collectively across the city landscape, from individual, household and neighbourhood action to city government, circular strategies can boost biodiversity (i.e be nature positive), can reduce pollution and can cut greenhouse gas emissions

Cities are well positioned to drive circular innovation owing to their increased agility and their proximity to residents as compared to higher orders of government. The City of Toronto is actively engaged in multiple circular economy networks, such as the National Zero Waste Council (NZWC) and the Canadian Circular Cities and Regions Initiative; and fosters community level action through initiatives like the Community Reduce & Reuse Programs. In Toronto, over 88 local business and community led initiatives are operating in the circular economy space. The Zero Waste Hub Toronto, for example, works with local organisations and green groups to promote waste reduction in the city through reuse training, DIY skill building, education and awareness programs, and more. Meanwhile, the Repair Cafe Toronto organises free community gatherings that teach repair and upcycling skills, and under the GrowTO Urban Agriculture Plan, a network of over fourteen community-based sites that grow crops and diversify local food sources. The presence of these circular organisations and initiatives indicates that there is a strong foundation to support Toronto’s ongoing circular journey.

 The ‘Baselining for a Circular Toronto’ study took a holistic approach to a circular Toronto, and spotlighted three sectors to drive circular change: waste management, construction, and the food system.

Food system: strong potential for local innovation and impact

About 2.1 million tonnes of food is available for consumption in Toronto every year. Of that, about 70% is produced within Canada. Nationally, about 60% of the food thrown away by Canadians, could have been eaten and instead ends up wasted. In the Toronto economy, an estimated 30% (approximately 630,000 tonnes) of the food volume flowing through the city each year is disposed rather than consumed. Although there are some improvements when compared to historical trends (e.g. organic waste diversion; food rescue), the food system remains mired in inefficiencies that could prevent further improvements. If business as usual is maintained, annual food waste produced by Toronto's economy could climb to nearly 800,000 tonnes by 2030. 

The food-related carbon footprint of Toronto’s food system, from production to distribution, consumption to disposal, currently stands at about 17 million tonnes CO2e per year. And if food waste levels continue to increase, the same could be expected in related carbon emissions. With current food waste carbon-emissions for Toronto high relative to other large cities, addressing food waste could both lead to significant social- and climate-positive outcomes.

The study identified three potential avenues that Toronto could explore to work towards a more circular food system: 

  • Promoting healthy and culturally-appropriate food for all, sourced as locally as possible, and as sustainably produced, processed, packaged and distributed as possible. 
  • Minimising avoidable food waste through food rescue and redistribution to interested partners and/or residents, 
  • Promoting food waste avoidance. 

Construction: high levels of waste, high potential for recovery, reuse, and innovation

The construction industry in Toronto is material-intensive and relies primarily on extracting virgin materials to build new projects, rather than utilising existing structures and materials to alleviate the environmental impacts of mining, forestry, aggregates and material processing. The sector consumes a total of about 17 million tonnes of materials per year in new construction, while approximately 366,000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste is produced annually. Current estimates suggest that only 12% of Toronto's construction and demolition waste is diverted from landfill. With the construction sector sending thousands of tonnes of materials to landfill each year, enhancing circular principles in this sector could significantly mitigate the levels of wasted materials and related carbon emissions that would otherwise accompany Toronto’s population and economic growth.

While some local businesses are exploring circular economy approaches such as design for modularity and disassembly—thereby signalling an appetite for change—the lack of available data on relevant material flows, amongst other factors, poses a challenge to understanding and improving the current system. This informs the future avenues that could be explored, including the following goals:

  • Toronto develops a future-proof built environment aligned with circular economy principles 
  • Toronto increases the quantity and quality of data on construction and demolition materials to recover as many materials embedded in its building stock as possible
  • Toronto promotes high value recycling and material recovery of construction and demolition waste

Waste management: already attracting circular actions

Toronto's economy generates approximately 2.1 million tonnes of solid waste each year which, under a business-as-usual scenario, could rise to as much as 2.5 million tonnes by 2030. This translates to 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year—about 10% of all community-wide greenhouse gas emissions. The City of Toronto already achieves a residential diversion rate of 53%, which is significantly higher than the Canadian national average (27%) and in line with European averages (47%). This only represents a fraction of the picture, though as the City of Toronto manages less than half the waste generated in Toronto. Almost all institutional, commercial, and industrial waste is handled by the private sector, including some multi-residential waste. Only 17% of privately handled non-residential waste is diverted, and data on residential waste managed by these haulers is not publicly available.

The City of Toronto’s Long-Term Waste Management Strategy sets out an ambitious plan to operate an innovative and sustainable waste management utility for the residents, institutions, and businesses served by the municipal government. This indicates commitment and readiness for acceleration, and demonstrates growing momentum to innovate away from linear waste cycles.

It will be beneficial to explore a comprehensive circular economy approach that further considers the upstream processes and decisions that are necessary to avoid generating waste in the first place, including interventions outside the waste sector in the realms of policy, design, and economic development. 

Future pathways that could be explored include:

  • Minimise waste generation,
  • Stimulate a thriving market for secondary materials
  • Improve the transparency, accessibility and verifiability of waste data throughout the city. 

Everyone has a role to play in building a circular Toronto

The City of Toronto can play a leading role in the transition towards a more circular economy by creating an environment in which circular innovation can flourish, and by making changes within its own operations, policies, and practices. However, collaboration and partnerships between various local stakeholders will be key to enable successful change. Everyone has a role to play in a circular economy. The transition is also an opportunity to make space for different perspectives and to address historical and systemic injustices—and to create a more resilient, inclusive future. This study has also shed light on different roles the City of Toronto and other stakeholders such as other orders of government, businesses, academia and more could have on the journey towards circularity – insights that could inform approaches for cities across North America.

Do you want to make your city more circular?

Learn more about what other cities are doing on our website.

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