Face Masks

With COVID-19, the Need for a Circular Economy is Clearer than Ever

By Ben Clark, Consultant, The Delphi Group

Have you noticed more garbage piling up in your home during quarantine? It’s only natural when we’re all spending more time at home, doing more online shopping, ordering more take-out, using disposable personal protective equipment (PPE), and certain businesses have pressed pause on reusable bags and coffee mugs.

Did you know that only 9% of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste we generate in Canada is recycled? Much of it ends up in our waterways and oceans, eventually making its way back into the food we eat and water we drink. While environmentally friendly alternatives, such as biodegradable and compostable materials, are available for many common products, the uptake has been slow. Even if biodegradable alternatives are available, proper compost facilities may not be.

Single-use items are products typically thrown out after only one use. These items are used for a short period of time, but their impact can last thousands of years. While there are many examples of these in our daily lives, Examples of single-use items currently being considered for regulation include:

  • Bags
  • Cups
  • Takeout containers
  • Straws and utensils

The good news is that governments were making progress to reduce plastic pollution and single-use items before the pandemic started. Initiatives include municipal bylaws (such as bans on plastic bags and fees for consumers), national bans, and international standards and agreements.

Leading governments have not backed away from plans to reduce single-use items, as both Germany and the Netherlands have recently announced bans will become effective in summer 2021. Earlier this year China also announced plans to restrict straws and bags by 2025.

A wide range of businesses and non-profit organizations have also started testing various initiatives to reduce plastic consumption and waste, all coalescing around the overarching theme of the circular economy. For example, a partnership was recently announced between Nova Chemicals and Merlin Plastics to build a new recycling facility in B.C., increasing the capacity to produce food-grade packaging from recycled materials.

By design, the circular economy eliminates waste and regenerates natural systems by keeping resources and manufactured materials in our economy for longer through redesign, upcycling, re-manufacturing, and re-use. By shifting away from the linear “take-make-dispose” supply chain, the circular approach presents a tremendous opportunity to rethink how we design, use, and reuse our resources (both products and services).

While the current pandemic presents a challenging context, the fact remains that the circular economy will help us reduce waste, resource use, and carbon emissions…AND it will generate additional economic output—an estimated $4.5 trillion according to Accenture research.


The Canadian Context

When it comes to waste management initiatives, local government is usually where the rubber hits the road (or where that rubber is recycled into playground surfaces in the case of used tire recycling initiatives). Single-use items like plastic bags, cups, and other packaging make up a significant proportion of municipal waste, giving cities an incentive to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills—and, even more importantly, reduce the use of these items in the first place. In Metro Vancouver, for example, over 1 billion single-use items are disposed of every year, with the most common items being utensils, plastic bags, and disposable cups.

Despite some early speedbumps related to jurisdictional authority (for example, Victoria’s plastic bag ban court challenge), more and more local governments are developing strategies and bylaws to limit the use of single-use items, including the Cities of Toronto, Vancouver, Surrey, Calgary, and others.

At a provincial level, the B.C. Government is developing a Plastics Action Plan as part of its broader CleanBC plan. A public engagement process in fall 2019 received over 35,000 responses and showed that a large majority are concerned about plastic waste and willing to purchase recycled products (even if they might cost more). The Province has also approved several local bylaws and announced its intention to give new authority to local governments to ban certain types of plastic products without requiring provincial approval.

At the federal level, Canada championed the development of the Ocean Plastics Charter under their G7 presidency in 2018. That same year, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (which includes provincial and territorial ministers) approved in principle a Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste. The first phase of the Action Plan under this strategy was approved in June 2019, and a second phase was recently announced in July 2020. In Canada’s Speech from the Throne last week, the announcement was made referencing plans to ban harmful single-use plastics starting in 2021 and to ensure that more plastics are recycled.


Short-term Challenges and Long-term Solutions

“This pandemic has highlighted the value of plastics in many uses but has not altered the systemic vulnerabilities throughout the supply chain.” Rachel A. Meidl, LP.D, CHMM, fellow in energy and environment at Rice University’s Baker Institute

The current pandemic presents new challenges to the transition to a circular economy. Many grocery stores have banned reusable bags and cafes have banned reusable cups in an effort to protect their front- line staff. At the same time, global demand for certain plastics has increased in order to manufacture PPE, while low oil prices have also made virgin plastics cheaper than recycled alternatives, as highlighted in a recent article from Forbes.

The article describes the need for a systems-level approach to overcome the deficiencies of short-term and product-based solutions. This approach will require greater investments in advanced chemical recycling, improved waste management infrastructure, investments in transformational RD&D of higher-quality polymers that are infinitely recyclable, and collaboration between industries, technology providers, and governments at all levels.

The nature of a circular economy approach generally is that it requires systems-level approaches and cross-sector collaboration. At the recent GLOBE Advance workshop on Advancing a Circular Economy in Canada, over 100 leaders and subject matter experts gathered to explore the current state of sector-level transitions to a circular economy. Workshop participants identified the top two barriers to the plastics waste challenge as: 1) the lack of industry standards, and 2) the lack of harmonized policy. Participants also highlighted opportunities for progress in plastics production:

  • Government can play a role in harmonizing standards and definitions.
  • Companies can lead by positioning circularity as part of their brands.
  • Researchers can continue to grow the evidence body related to the circular economy and companies and governments can use that research to drive evidence-based decisions.
  • Both the public and private sector can work to influence consumer behaviour and help inform purchasing decisions.
  • Stakeholders can collaborate across sectors to create a common playbook.

A recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts and SYSTEMIQ, entitled “Breaking the Plastic Wave” outlines key pathways for eliminating the plastics challenge. Industry in Canada has also been exploring solutions, including a plastics research paper published by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group, with support from Environment and Climate Change Canada, entitled “A Roadmap to Support the Circularity and Recycling of Plastics in Canada”.

These critical conversations will be continued in the Circular Economy Solution Series, which is presented by the Circular Economy Leadership Coalition and powered by GLOBE Series.


There is a Place for Everyone in the Transition

While many of us have noticed an increase in plastic waste in our own homes, a similar challenge has been playing out on a global scale. China has curtailed its imports of recycled plastic by 96%, alongside other countries in Asia, creating a need for domestic solutions.

Without the ability to send our waste out of sight and out of mind, there is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on alternative uses for materials, and ultimately think about how we avoid creating waste in the first place.

The good news is that researchers, businesses, and policy and industry leaders have ramped up efforts on these challenges in the last two years. This foundational work, combined with an accelerated innovation agenda due to the pandemic, is setting the stage for a broader, long-term shift to a more circular economy. As public health concerns are addressed and we transition to a post-COVID world, let’s continue to work together to act on the many opportunities in the emerging circular economy.


If you’re interested in learning  more about the Circular Economy Solution Series or our Circular Economy services, please contact Ben bclark@delphi.ca or Paul Shorthouse, Senior Director pshorthouse@delphi.ca.

GLOBE Series and The Delphi Group work together as part of a constellation of organizations with a common vision. Learn more about the services we offer together here.