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.”

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.