A Successful Circular Economy Depends on Collaboration

By Nate Van Beilen, a student in the new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program at the University of Toronto.


Collaboration as an ingredient for success has almost become a cliché but clichés are often based on inescapable truths. Ontario’s future will depend on this truth as it strives to create a circular economy. There will be many challenges but if well executed, the circular economy will reduce raw material use, extend those materials useful life, and minimize waste; a triple win for business and a BIG win for society as a whole.

The business case for a circular economy has been proven but many obstacles still remain. Inertia is a strong force and implementing this change will require a mindset shift in terms of what it means to collaborate and how business should be conducted.

Collaboration has many moving parts

Think of the many stakeholders that handle a product that has been designed for cradle to cradle circularity. Now think of the culture shift that has to take place for the development of that product and all the supporting systems needed. Developing solutions for highly complex problems and getting all the stakeholders on the same page can be a monumental challenge.

Brand owners, industrial designers, manufacturers, municipalities, waste management service providers, and consumers – the entire value chain – has a role to play in a successful circular economy. Each of these stakeholder groups will have to support each other and co-create integrated solutions that encompass best practices and cross-sector knowledge.

The rules are about to change

We all know that data is essential for making informed decisions. Ontario’s newly established Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA) has a mandate to collect data about resource use and waste production. The Industrial, Commercial and Institutional (IC&I) sectors will need to cooperate with RPRA by providing the data. This data will be used to develop effective regulatory requirements, sound performance metrics and smart goals.

Also in Ontario’s future will be a new producer responsibility regime (pg. 15) that will lead to efficient and effective recovery systems and new markets for recovered materials. This will require producers to collaborate with municipalities, industry associates, service providers and other stakeholders like never before.  Developing standards, coordinating logistics and processing, and establishing end markets for materials will ensure that landfills become the destination of last resort for materials in Ontario. 

But new regulations alone won’t ensure success. Ontario will need to gain broad public support to tackle the challenges ahead. Thankfully we have plenty of experience in changing public opinion – just look at public health issues.

How might companies collaborate?

Collaboration is a strong theme in the National Zero Waste Council’s Circular Economy Business Toolkit. In order to embed circular thinking into a company’s core business strategy, NZWC recommends that companies establish a collaborative innovation lab that will bring together stakeholders to ensure a complete understanding of issues and to co-create solutions. Educating internal staff about the circular economy will also help to facilitate collaboration between departments.  

Here in Canada, the Ontario Circular Economy Innovation Lab, organized by Natural Step Canada, brought together 25 participants from across North America to focus on developing solutions and a vision for printed paper and packaging in a circular economy for Ontario. The participants represented stakeholder groups including; government, business, industry associations, academia, and think tanks. Slowly the efforts are paying off as group members are beginning to develop a shared vision of what success will look like and a number of promising initiatives and projects are beginning to take shape.

Only though the eyes of different stakeholders can companies gain a complete perspective of the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead.  A few organizations and businesses right here in the Greater Toronto Area show how collaboration can be successful in building a circular economy.

Toronto area Eco-Business Zone

Partners in Project Green is a community of businesses, governments, institutions and facilities in the Greater Toronto Area that aims to create the largest eco-business zone in North America. PPG has developed a strong community of stakeholders that collaborate to find solutions for sustainability issues that create real value. One of PPG’s initiatives is a materials exchange which facilitates materials exchanges between organizations. The material exchange helps to find markets for used materials or byproducts, changing them from a waste to a resource.

Canadian Tire also showcases its support of the circular economy through its nation-wide materials recovery program. Canadian Tire has a facility that is dedicated to recycling damaged products that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Products from across Canada are sent to the Brampton Ontario based facility for disassembly and the materials are then sold to other businesses, thereby generating revenues, some of which are donated to Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart Charity. Canadian Tire worked with Greenspace Waste Solutions which provided expertise on the suppliers, vendors and equipment needed for a customized waste solution. Canadian Tire is now in a strong position to achieve a circular economy business model for material recovery.

Wastenot Farms is a small GTA business that has demonstrated how to convert organic waste into a valuable resource using worms and regenerative agriculture. Organic waste makes up a third of all waste produced in Ontario and much of it still ends up in landfills where it decomposes and turns into the equivalent of 8.5 megatonnes of carbon emissions each year. Wastenot’s worms upgrade organic waste into worm manure, an extremely effective soil amendment product which reduces emissions through soil carbon sequestration. Wastenot works with forward thinking businesses like Velcro and Bullfrog Power to convert their organic wastes into a valuable resource, even returning a portion of the worm manure back for these businesses to use in a tangible demonstration of circular design.

A future where companies are Environmentally Accountable and Financially Responsible

The transition to a circular economy will be a joint effort and it will create real value and mutual benefits for stakeholders that find ways to collaborate. Change is in the air and the time for action is now. The World Economic Forum has put the economy on its agenda and the  Ontario Government has also recently proclaimed Bill 151, The Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, and proposed a MScSM_Web_Button_FINAL (1)Strategy for a Waste Free Ontario: Building the Circular Economy.

In the near future producers will be environmentally accountable and financially responsible for the materials used in their products and packaging. Early adopters will find that they will become more effective and efficient at recovering resources, reducing waste and cutting costs. But they can’t do it alone – in the circular economy, collaboration will be the key to success.
Nate Van Beilen is a student in the new Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program at the University of Toronto.