Lessons from North America: How Toronto is going circular

  • 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?

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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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Circle Economy

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