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.”

Giving office buildings a longer lease on life

In 2019, Integral Group wanted to set up a new office in downtown Calgary. But they didn’t want to put pressure on the municipal landfill. So when they fitted out their 68,000-square-foot space in the TELUS Sky tower, they got creative.

Instead of drywall, they used cladding made from discarded crates. Salvaged fir moulding was repurposed into baseboards. Window samples formed a stunning feature wall. The list goes on. As a result, the project produced zero waste at no extra cost, thanks to the savings on landfill and material fees.

Sustainable approaches like this are becoming increasingly crucial in the construction sector: the largest consumer of raw materials worldwide and the source of an estimated 40 per cent of urban solid waste. And there are important climate change implications as well, because harvesting and processing raw materials — from timber to cement — produces a significant volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“If we want to get to net zero, we actually have to think about the materials in our buildings and how we use them,” says Paul Shorthouse, managing director at Circular Economy Leadership Canada (CELC). “We don’t have to constantly extract new materials to build all the time.”

Partnering for circular insights

Partnerships are essential to better understanding the challenges and opportunities in the circular building space. CELC scoped out a project that brought together diverse players from across the construction and real estate value chain in order to explore the economic and carbon benefits that could come from extending the life of Canada’s 300 million square feet of office buildings.

“It wasn’t an easy task because a lot of this data doesn’t exist,” says Shorthouse. That’s where collaborations with CSA Group, industry, and federal government agencies — including the National Research Council and Natural Resources Canada — helped fill the gaps.

A consultant was hired to analyze different circular strategies, from extending the life of older buildings through adaptive reuse, to innovative leasing models, to exploring ways of minimizing construction waste by upcycling materials during renovation. Another consultant conducted lifecycle assessments (LCAs) comparing the carbon impact of retrofitting different types of office buildings versus demolishing them and replacing them with new energy-efficient buildings. (spoiler: retrofitting reduces GHG emissions in every scenario examined.)

Partnering with the Building Owner and Management Association (BOMA) Canada, builder EllisDon, commercial real estate firms including Hullmark and Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL), and other players across the value chain provided crucial insights.

In 2023, CELC published the findings in a first-of-its-kind Guide for the Real Estate Sector that quickly found a receptive audience.

Helping an industry hungry for solutions

Cutting carbon emissions is a priority across the industry. At the same time, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work, dramatically increasing office vacancies.

“The conditions are ripe for rethinking the use of our office building stock through upgrades, renovations, conversions and other creative forms of adaptive reuse,” CSA Group’s Ivica Karas told participants in a 2023 online webinar. “We just needed a catalyst. That is why we are very thankful to CELC.”

And as the report emphasizes, circular practices do more than reduce carbon emissions. Upgrading spaces to make them more energy-efficient leads to happier tenants and lower operating costs. Meanwhile, as the price of materials increases, renovating and repurposing buildings, rather than building from scratch, limits financial risks.

“The business case exists,” says JLL’s Hazel Sutton. “What we need to do now is just keep repeating it.” And not just for office buildings — but across the entire building sector and beyond.

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.

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.”