How do you solve a housing crisis?

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Canada is short 3.5 million homes. And there’s no single smoking gun to blame.

Supply has lagged demand for decades. Record population growth means more people than ever need a place to live. The building industry faces rising material costs and labour shortages. Canadians struggle to afford what’s on the market as rents and interest rates soar. And as the climate crisis escalates, floods and wildfires threaten more of the country’s existing housing stock while potentially causing families and entire communities to be displaced.

So how do we tackle that huge, complicated mess? Too often, the discussions pit landlords and investors against tenant rights groups and organizations fighting homelessness. But two key organizations — the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and REALPAC, a national association of apartment investors, financiers and landlords — recognized they had shared interests.

To explore that common ground, they approached Mike Moffatt, one of Canada’s foremost experts on housing policy and a key leader in the partnership between Smart Prosperity and The Natural Step. “We were seen as a trusted third party. We understood the issues, but we didn’t have a preconceived position.” says Moffatt.

Finding consensus

In June 2023, Moffatt and his team brought together more than a dozen different representatives from industry, the social sector and academia to discuss how federal policies could create more rental housing — and make more of it affordable.

“We basically locked ourselves in a room for eight hours and said, okay, nobody leaves until we figure out how to solve this thing,” Moffatt recounts.

The process could have easily gone sideways, he said. Instead, participants found a surprising amount they agreed on, starting with the seriousness of the situation. Everyone in the room truly believed Canada is facing a crisis.

The next step was looking at the wide range of bottlenecks — from the lack of cross-sector coordination to lengthy approval times. Defining those issues allowed the group to then debate ways to address them. “We had difficult conversations, but nothing ever went off the rails,” Moffatt says. “We left the room with a general, very high-level consensus of what the solution should look like.”

That consensus laid the groundwork for a National Housing Accord published in August 2023, which was subsequently endorsed by more than 70 organizations across the country.

Informing federal action

The report provides a 10-point plan for bringing together public and private builders, the non-profit housing sector, investors and labour to address Canada’s rental shortage. Several of its recommendations found their way into the federal government’s fall economic statement, including eliminating the GST/HST on purpose-built rental housing and creating a catalogue of designs pre-approved by the CMHC to help fast-track construction.

That still leaves plenty more to do. But as Moffatt points out, Canada has successfully managed housing crises in the past — like the massive crunch following World War II. And that means we can do it again.

“Policy doesn’t change that quickly. And even when it does, homes take a while to get built,” he says. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.”

Teaming up to tackle flexible plastic packaging

From your chocolate bar wrapper to the packaging that protects your latest online purchase, flexible plastic is everywhere. But in Canada, only three to four per cent of it gets recycled.

“In many cases it is the ideal package for many different types of products, but we haven’t done a good job of designing it for recyclability or effectively collecting and recycling it,” says Paul Shorthouse, Senior Director with the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP).

He points to how flexible plastic packaging and films often get caught on equipment, float around in the sorting plant, and contaminate other recycling streams. Even when they’re properly sorted, preparing them for recyclers and reclaimers is no small task, with a 750-kilogram bale containing anywhere between 75,000 and 225,000 items.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that flexible packaging often contains multiple layers of different types of plastics and other materials that many recycling facilities can’t easily separate or process.

“We talk about flexibles like it’s one thing, but it’s actually many different things with hundreds of different structures and different resins,” explains Charles David Mathieu-Poulin, Strategic Advisor at the Circular Plastics Taskforce (CPT), a CPP Partner.

That makes it difficult to offer reclaimers a pure, high-quality product, in a market where demand — and prices — are already low.

“It’s a systems problem,” says Shorthouse. “So we needed to bring the whole system of players together to address it.”

Creating a blueprint for the perfect recycling system

In 2023, CPP and the Circular Plastics Taskforce joined forces with key upstream and downstream players to launch PRFLEX (Perfecting the Recycling System for Flexible Plastic Packaging).

The initiative brings together key recycling organizations and packaging industry experts who understand the science of turning recycled resins into new products: CPP, the Circular Plastics Taskforce, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, Circular Materials, Éco Entreprises Québec and Recycle BC. It also attracted The Film and Flexibles Recycling Coalition of The Recycling Partnership — a U.S.-based NGO keen to learn from what is happening in Canada.

By working collaboratively, the coalition aims to improve recovery and recycling rates for flexible plastic packaging and films collected from Canadian households. “We realized that working together created a better result than just working independently,” says Shorthouse. “It’s about breaking down some of the silos.”

Over a six-month period in 2023, a research team gathered data to better understand the materials placed on the market, as well as collection and recycling rates across the country. They identified infrastructure gaps in material recovery facilities and recycling facilities, and they assessed European models to learn from global best practices.

Catalyzing system-wide change

In December 2023, the PRFLEX study findings were published, along with nine recommendations on how to improve curbside collection, enhance sorting capabilities, promote easy-to-process packaging and address other systemic issues. PRFLEX also hosted a webinar to discuss the study’s findings, attracting some of the world’s biggest brands and recycling companies.

Now, the group is working with stakeholders to implement their recommendations. Those efforts include running technical workshops to help producers and brand owners redesign for recyclability, piloting improved collection processes, and equipping material recovery facilities and recycling facilities with the latest technologies such as enhanced sensors, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

In the process, they’re creating real solutions to a complex problem. “We want to be a catalyst for change,” says Mathieu-Poulin.