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.

Why farmers play a big role in fighting climate change

With fall harvest wrapping up, Kristjan Hebert stands amidst the stubble in one of his fields near Moosomin, Saskatchewan. But it’s another valuable “crop” at his feet that he’s eager to talk about: carbon.

Over the years, his 32,000-acre grain and oilseed operation has embraced many climate-smart practices, like using low-till farming keeps more carbon locked into the soil, adopting variable-rate fertility programs that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and planting fall crops keeps the soil covered with vegetation.

“My definition of sustainability is to leave my land, my financial statements and my industry and my community in a better state, generation after generation,” says Hebert. 

With over 150 million acres of agricultural land in Canada, supporting more farmers as they embrace similar approaches makes a big difference in the fight against climate change.

“Farmers are important stewards of the land,” explains Barbara Swartzentruber, a Senior Fellow at the Smart Prosperity Institute and Program Director at the recently launched Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-Food (CANZA). “As part of that, they are also important potential stewards of addressing climate change.”

Creating economic incentives

However, adopting new practices involves risks, costs and steep learning curves in a sector where margins are slim. This is why CANZA wants to help drive economic incentives that reduce these challenges. 

A global market is emerging for Scope 3 emissions: the indirect greenhouse gas emissions produced along a company’s supply chain. This will allow environmental benefits linked to certain practices adopted on farms to be monetized up the value chain, providing farmers new opportunities for income while helping the processor or retailer achieve their net-zero goals.

There are practical questions that need to be addressed. How can we ensure these markets are credible? How can we make them accessible to farmers?

CANZA is bringing together farmers, like Hebert, with major players in the agri-food sector and beyond, including Maple Leaf Foods, Loblaw, McCain Foods, Nutrien, RBC, BCG and the Arrell Food Institute. 

That’s crucial, says Swartzentruber, “It’s going to take real collaboration for system change.” 

Creating credibility and catalyzing systems-wide change

A critical component to making this work is verifying the volume of emissions being mitigated through farming practices, so buyers and their stakeholders know they are paying for real climate action. Right now, however, assessing soil carbon levels is an expensive and time-consuming lab-based process. Farmers need a much faster, accurate and cheaper way to assess how much carbon they’re keeping in their fields. 

CANZA launched its Climate-Smart Farming Initiative in 2023, partnering with the University of Guelph and University of Saskatchewan to test different options that allow farmers to assess soil carbon stocks in a reliable way. 

Ultimately, their goal is to identify, create and communicate measurement tools and methodologies that can be rolled out to different soil types, climates and crops across the country. 

The result will be more climate-smart farming practices and more environmental-based incomes for farmers, helping Canada’s whole agri-food industry transition to a net zero future. 

“I really do believe that we can be the solution that the majority of the world is looking for,” Hebert says.

Powering the EV revolution

The pumpjacks dotting Alberta’s landscape might not look like an entry point to the booming electric vehicle (EV) industry. But Liz Lappin sees things differently. When the geologist joined the Energy Futures Lab as a Fellow in 2017, she brought a bold idea: to make Canada a globally competitive lithium provider.

Lithium is a key ingredient in EV batteries. Currently, most of the world’s supply comes from either hard rock mining in Australia — a process with big environmental costs — or from salt lakes in South American countries with dubious human rights records.

But it’s also found in wastewater pumped from Alberta’s oil and gas wells, she explained, and new processing technology was being developed that could quickly separate it out. As a result, today’s waste product could play a valuable role in tomorrow’s energy system.

What started as a discussion of lithium quickly became much bigger. Canada also boasts significant reserves of many other critical battery ingredients — including nickel, cobalt, sulfur and graphite — providing an opportunity to create an extensive value chain.

The question was how to support the emergence of a new industry from the ground up.

Critical steps for critical minerals

“A lot of success, honestly, comes down to how you frame and position the work,” says Erin Romanchuk, Deputy Director at the Energy Futures Lab (EFL). Alison Cretney, EFL’s Managing Director agrees: “When you can help the system see itself as a system, you can spot opportunities, action them faster and create more impact,” she says.

EFL is a leader in bringing together diverse perspectives, encouraging participants to think beyond the status quo and co-creating solutions that work for everyone.

Working with EFL allowed Lappin to test ideas, iterate them and collaborate with staff and the community of Fellows. One of the results was the 2020 formation of the Battery Metals Association of Canada (BMAC): a trade organization that convenes key players from across the supply chain. BMAC then worked with EFL to establish a vision and national roadmap for the nascent industry.

The 2022 roadmap lays out strategic priorities, from catalyzing battery recycling markets to developing creative financial mechanisms to establishing public-private-Indigenous partnerships. A key pillar is bolstering Canada’s ability to process raw minerals domestically, instead of exporting them. And that’s where Western Canada’s deep experience in resource development could come into play.

Setting Canada up for success

Today, oil and gas is Canada’s number one export. Cars and automotive parts are number two. As global markets move away from internal combustion vehicles, both sectors are facing significant disruption, and the country needs new industries to fill the void. That’s where a robust battery metals supply chain could be transformative.

The key is making sure we do it right. “How do we create the conditions in the system where everyone can thrive — businesses and humans and the environment?” Romanchuk asks.

To help answer that question, BMAC is developing a Western Battery Hub and turning to ELF for strategic support. The Lab has been brought in to facilitate the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives, create a two-way learning space and promote opportunities for meaningful economic reconciliation across the value chain as it takes shape.

“It’s beyond just a net-zero system,” Cretney stresses. “It’s about equity and inclusiveness and ensuring future sustainability.”

What’s the future of plastic packaging?

There are plenty of reasons why we use plastic packaging on a daily basis. It’s affordable. It’s versatile. It can seal out water, moisture and light, protecting the product underneath. And because it’s lightweight, it cuts down on transportation, saving money and greenhouse gas emissions.

But far too much of it ends up in landfills or as litter on land and in our oceans. Meanwhile, microplastics are found everywhere from remote Arctic ecosystems to our own bloodstreams.

Alternative packaging solutions can bring their own disadvantages. They may require more energy to produce. They may be heavier, increasing CO2 emissions during transport. And when it comes to food packaging, non-plastic alternatives may allow the product to spoil quicker, wasting all the resources that went into its production.

So how do we reduce both the volume and the impact of plastic waste? It’s complicated but it’s possible. And that’s why the Canada Plastics Pact (CPP) exists.

Driving practical solutions

Today, the CPP is finding workable ways to reimagine the system, including particularly thorny issues like flexible plastics. “We want to keep plastic in the economy. We don’t want to see it in the natural environment,” says Cher Mereweather, the organization’s managing director. “We appreciate that it’s complex, but we are committed to working together, because wicked problems cannot be solved in isolation.”

The Pact brings together nearly 100 key stakeholders across the entire plastics value chain. They include major retailers like Loblaw Companies Limited, Canadian Tire and Walmart Canada; consumer goods companies like Nestle, General Mills and Coca-Cola Canada. There are companies involved in raw material production, manufacturing and waste management. And there are trade associations, environmental organizations, government bodies and academic institutions.

Together, they’ve developed a roadmap for creating a circular economy for plastic packaging in Canada, grounded in the latest data and informed by industry experts.

The latest version — set to be released in spring 2024 — lays out four key priorities. One is preventing waste in the first place by reducing, reusing and redesigning consumer goods. The second is optimizing the infrastructure required for reuse, refill and recycling systems through measures like standardizing packaging designs and investing in new technologies.

Another priority is making sure the right data is available to enable systemic change. This includes helping retailers better track the amount and kind of plastics going out their door, for example, and how much of it ends up as waste. Or it could mean understanding the life cycle of materials to ensure that potential solutions are actually effective. The final priority is sharing the knowledge and lessons learned along the way.

At the same time, the Pact is establishing “accelerator pods” that bring together key players and leverage strategic investments to develop and scale solutions, such as reusable and refillable alternatives to conventional packaging. “Because if you say no to something, we need other things to say yes to,” explains The Natural Step’s Sarah Brooks, who serves as an advisor to the Canada Plastics Pact.

Reimagining the entire plastics value chain for such a ubiquitous material is a huge undertaking. But for the CPP, the key is having committed partners at the table who understand what’s at stake and are willing to do the hard work. “That’s the power of the community,” Mereweather says.