North America and the circularity transition
Prepared for delivery at the second plenary of the World Circular Economy Forum: The journey to a circular economy in the Canada-US region. H.E Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canada. Ladies and Gentlemen We all know the threats facing our planet, and the role that circularity can play in solving them. The COVID-19 […]

Prepared for delivery at the second plenary of the World Circular Economy Forum: The journey to a circular economy in the Canada-US region.

H.E Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Canada.

Ladies and Gentlemen

We all know the threats facing our planet, and the role that circularity can play in solving them. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for urgent action on the three planetary crises we are currently facing: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis which are driven by unsustainable consumption and production. It has also provided us with a window of opportunity, through stimulus packages, to prioritize circularity as part of a green recovery that supports the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and other international commitments.

Canada and the US have a vital role to play in this global green recovery.

This is self-evident, given their influence, natural resources and environmental impact. Their combined economies make up over a quarter of the global economy. According to the IMF, Canada has the third highest total estimated value of natural resources, at USD 33 trillion. The US has the seventh highest. Both countries are powerhouses for design innovation, technology and finance.

But the North American transition to circularity is in its adolescence.

Canada leads the developed world in per capita production of waste, generating 1,587 pounds per person every year. The US discards 500 billion pounds of solid waste every year. Three-quarters of this waste could be recycled or repurposed; yet the current figure is only 30 per cent. Re-manufacturing only accounts for two per cent of production in the US.

A problem, yes, but also a major opportunity. There are many ways to seize this opportunity. I will focus on three.

Firstly, city-level action is a huge driver for change.

Cities can adopt circular policies and practices, delivering progress and putting pressure upwards. In fact, much of the progress in North America is at the city level. The city of Toronto has taken steps to become the first circular city in Canada. These include revamping an Extended Producer Responsibility policy and launching a Green Market Acceleration Program that gives private partners access to the city’s facilities to accelerate circular solutions.

The City of Phoenix, meanwhile, committed to recycling 40 per cent of its waste by 2020. By mid-2019, it had reached 36 per cent, from only 20 per cent in 2015. It plans to reach zero waste by 2050, including through a public-private incubator focused on finding new uses for waste from textiles, food scraps and batteries. There are many other tactics to retrofit and redesign cities for circularity, in buildings, mobility, food systems and more. We must use them all.

Secondly, tech giants can reform and innovate.

The potential of the American tech giants to make a positive difference is obvious. Materials in discarded electronics are worth an estimated USD 57 billion annually, but more than 80 per cent of these materials do not get collected. Making devices more repairable and recyclable can dramatically reduce the use of finite resources. Big data, AI and blockchain can help us make better use of resources by tracing information on the content of products to understand how they can be recycled.  Tech companies also reach billions of people through social platforms. They can help consumers make choices and that promote societal and environmental benefits. These moves are in the companies’ long-term interests. They should be doing this themselves. Government legislation and incentives in pandemic recovery, however, must accelerate reform.

Thirdly, North America’s extraction-heavy profile poses unique challenges.

Innovation will be required in the primary material production and resource extraction sectors. New approaches and clean technology are crucial. Recent investments by Canada in innovative green technology for the mining industry, for example, are promising to reduce material use, while enhancing competitiveness and creating jobs.

But the transition must be managed carefully, with leadership from the sector. People who do lose their jobs need to have alternative livelihoods – which is where prioritizing new, green industries in pandemic recovery packages can help. These are just some areas in which rapid action can spark a circularity revolution. We have not even touched on the role of the finance industry, how public procurement can build momentum or the importance of federal support for international goals.

It is clear that North America can help to lead the world out of the three planetary crises by embracing circularity and a green pandemic recovery. In this regard, I am pleased that Canada has made tackling the climate crisis a cornerstone of its recovery. My thanks to Minister Wilkinson for his commitment. I look forward to hearing more about the plans, and continuing the conversation when Canada hosts the 2021 WCEF in Toronto next autumn.

Thank you.

Inger Andersen

Executive Director

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