Rounding the Corner: Towards a Circular Economy in Canada

Canada repeatedly ranks in the top ten waste-producing countries globally. (1) Much of Canada’s waste piles up in landfills. (2) Ontario is expected to run out of landfill capacity by 2032, and even sooner if the United States prevents Ontario’s waste from crossing the border. (3) Excessive waste is a hallmark of a modern, linear economy with an ethos of “take, make, and waste”. 

The need for an alternate path forward is clear as the environmental costs of a linear economy mount. (4) A circular economy can help minimize waste and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which improves sustainability and tackles climate change, while also fostering economic growth and development. 

The transition to a circular economy can transform how goods and services are designed, manufactured, and used. (5) Thus far, Canada’s progress has been modest. Canada extracts or imports new material to meet almost 94% of its manufacturing needs; only 6.1% of materials entering the Canadian economy are from recycled sources. (6) 

While the need to transition to a circular economy is evident, the path to circularity, for both governments and businesses, is less clear. Though Canada lacks widespread circularity, some sectors and regions have overcome obstacles and implemented circular practices with success. 

A recent report by the CSA Public Policy Centre, “Rounding the Corner: Towards a Circular Economy in Canada”, examined leading circular economy examples across Canada:

  • Smart Cities, a regional circular food system in Guelph-Wellington, Ontario;
  • Metal Tech Alley (MTA), an industrial association for a regional economic development agency focused on resource extraction, manufacturing, and recycling in Trail, British Columbia; and
  • Fashion Takes Action (FTA), a non-profit fashion industry organization dedicated to sustainability, ethics, and circularity within the fashion value chain. 

These pockets of progress provide pragmatic, scalable, and proven examples that can be applied in other settings.

Lessons from Leading Circular Practices in Canada

The report highlighted two common success factors among the three leading circular economy case studies.

  • Increasing education and awareness about the circular economy

The organizations have a shared objective of increasing awareness and knowledge about the circular economy (a lack of awareness about the circular economy is one of the main barriers to growth, see below). For example, MTA and FTA both offer youth education programs to increase general awareness about the benefits of circular practices within their economic sectors (mining and minerals and textiles). Smart Cities provides mentorship and training on the circular economy to entrepreneurs growing businesses in the circular economy. 

  • Building networks and supporting collaboration across the value chain

A circular economy transforms business-to-business relationships within a value chain and requires increased collaboration. A common success factor among the leading circular organizations is helping businesses and stakeholders foster such connections. For example, MTA facilitated relationship building between two companies at opposite ends of a product’s lifespan to incorporate circular design. Smart Cities has built a circular ecosystem to strengthen collaboration among government, industry, investors, researchers, and the incubator community. This work is especially important given that many potential circular businesses are small to medium enterprises, which are too small to take up this type of systems thinking individually and may lack the resources after recovering from the pandemic.

The three leading circular economy case studies also faced similar obstacles. 

  • Lack of education 

The most pervasive barrier to scaling circular practices is the lack of awareness about the circular economy or how it differs from traditional recycling practices. This permeates even among businesses and value chains that would stand to benefit from its adoption. The lack of awareness can also impact the market demand for circular products. Most consumers are unaware of the concept of upcycling food waste and are unlikely to support products with upcycling certification. (Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have been consumed and are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains.) (7)

  • Inadequate infrastructure and design  

Current recycling infrastructure is not as adequate and equipped to meet the needs of a circular economy. A circular economy will require new and improved infrastructure, such as reverse logistics, reuse and repair, and collection, sorting and recycling facilities. Circular textile value chains will require new infrastructure which does not yet exist in Canada, such as the technical capacity to sort garments automatically. The absence of this capacity required FTA to manually sort textiles, which creates a barrier to scaling the circular value chain. MTA also grappled with a lack of standardization across product design and composition, which subsequently makes the disassembly and reintegration/repurposing of resources and materials back into supply chains much more difficult.

Towards Circularity 

Despite progress on the circular economy, linear economic practices remain prevalent across Canada. The CSA Public Policy paper argued that policymakers can play a pivotal role in advancing the circular economy by adopting eight key tools: developing national, provincial, and local circular strategies, harmonizing legislative frameworks and improving standardization, reducing economic barriers, advancing critical infrastructure, supporting economic organizations focused on driving circular practices, exploring measures to spur demand for circular products, and improving awareness and measurement. 

The transition towards a circular economy will require transformative change and participation from all sectors, including governments, business, and civil society. The promises—addressing climate change by reducing emissions and contributing to economic development—are worth overcoming the barriers and obstacles to its implementation. A circular economy may require a fundamentally different mindset, shifting away from the practice of consumerism and waste common in linear economies towards sustainability. 

© 2022 Canadian Standards Association | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

About the Author: 

Laura Anthony, Manager, Public Policy, CSA Group

Laura Anthony has managed research and policy analysis on multidisciplinary issues across various settings. She joined the CSA Public Policy Centre from Legislative Research at Queen’s Park, where she provided policy expertise to Members of Provincial Parliament and legislative committees tasked with financial oversight.

She previously held roles at the Samara Centre for Democracy, including leading the Centre’s research on Canadian democracy as Research Manager. Laura has discussed her research with national media outlets, presented at conferences across Canada as well as internationally, and contributed research to several organizations. Laura holds a Master of Arts in Political Science from Western University.

About CSA Group:

For over 100 years, CSA Group has been working to make Canada safer and more sustainable. With a mandate of holding the future to a higher standard, we have an interest in the social, economic, and environmental challenges that policymakers face when addressing the evolving needs of Canadians. The CSA Public Policy Centre raises critical questions, provides thoughtful analysis, and produces new ideas and policy pathways to address Canada’s most pressing policy challenges. Building on the organization’s long history of consensus building, we facilitate conversations, raise awareness of emerging issues, and promote collaborative, evidence-based solutions.


(1) Sensoneo. (2022). Global Waste Index. 

(2) Ankit, L.S., et. al. (2021, November). Electronic waste and their leachates impact on human health and environment: Global ecological threat and management. Science Direct.

(3) Ontario Waste Management Association. (2021). Landfills.

(4) Ramkumar, S. et. al. (2018). Linear Risks. World Business Council for Sustainable Development (wbcsd).

(5) Smart Prosperity Institute. (2022). Building the Circular Economy.,are%20designed%2C%20manufactured%20and%20used

(6) CCA. (2021). Turning Point: The Expert Panel on the Circular Economy in Canada.

(7) Charlebois, Dr. S. (2022, June 23). The Food Renaissance: Why upcycling offers untapped opportunities for food & beverage companies. Webinar.

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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