Transitioning to a circular economy – Learning from the Québec experience 2014-2020

  • 2021-05-17 21:33:23
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  • Author : Stéphanie Jagou


A new report explores Québec's transition to a sustainable closed loop economy - and provides key lessons for others' journey to circularity. This report aims to explore the implementation of a circular economy in the province of Québec between 2014 and 2020.


A spirit of inventiveness, innovation, and curiosity has propelled Québec in establishing itself as a circular economy leader. This experience is invaluable for all that are similarly seeking to transition from an unsustainable, wasteful linear economic system to one that reduces waste, captures value, fosters prosperity, and nurtures wellbeing within the planetary boundaries. Québec is distinguishing itself as one of the most advanced regions in circularity in North America. This report highlights the key lessons of the Québec experience between 2014 and 2020.

For the first time, this landmark report brings key learnings from the Québec experience to the rest of Canada with the hope that this deep look can catalyze other places in their own transition to a circular economy. It is for everyone who is interested in playing a role in building a new economy and a resilient society. The richness of perspectives included, and the depth of research undertaken in consolidating the findings that follow, offer new and interesting learnings for individuals across many organizations and jurisdictions. Academics, researchers, corporate leaders, community leaders, policymakers at all levels of government, practitioners, communicators, and others will find real-world guidance that can inform their respective role in shifting to a circular economy.

Spanning the years from 2014 to 2020, five sections and two case studies describe the research, partnerships, education, and storytelling – as well as the building of relationships and communities – that are essential to co-creating a circular economy. The insights and recommendations found throughout the report are meant to be thoughtfully considered, and then adapted to regional contexts, recognizing both the distinct needs – but also the interconnectedness – of different places.


Section one explores how to build an interdisciplinary community of researchers. It follows the inception of a new Institute, the EDDEC, that played a pioneering role in the deployment of a circular economy in Québec. The Institute supported a systemic approach to circularity, creating a structure where researchers and practitioners could co-create knowledge. By establishing a common definition and framework – and fostering research that crossed and connected disciplines – the Institute helped define the opportunities created by shifting away from linear business models and policies. It took this unifying definition and disseminated the co-created knowledge among private and public actors, as well as municipalities. The section shows how the new universitybased organization came to develop research, training, tools, and information that would be widely distributed, including through creative means like a collective book and massive open online courses available to a diversity of individuals. Mapping existing expertise, designing, and crafting a first interdisciplinary program of research are detailed, as well as maintaining long-term relationships with the research community and building bridges with practitioners. Creating an academic structure that crossed boundaries and bridged disciplines is explored as a key step in introducing new concepts and developing the collective knowledge that is essential for transitioning to a circular economy.

Concerted efforts to foster circularity in Québec have revealed extensive opportunities for implementation at various levels, including across value chains and regions, or by strategies. However, it takes time for stakeholders to take ownership of the concept and to integrate it into their organizations and practices. Section two examines cultivating partnerships and cross-pollinating ideas, so that change takes root and can grow across a system. In order to establish a common understanding of the circular economy and advance the transition, it was essential to support the formation of a community of practitioners in a bottom-up approach for knowledge co-construction. The creation of a multi-stakeholder roundtable is chronicled, including key learnings from convening and facilitating this partnership with the private sector, NGOs, government agencies, key ministries, and leading applied research organizations. Bringing together 20 key decision makers and influencers from prominent organizations across sectors was instrumental to the effectiveness of this roundtable. This section discusses how to spark interest and select the right partners to ensure diverse representation from across the entire system, including provincial and local governments, private sector, industry associations, finance, education, research, and civil society. Establishing the format and the mission of the group was critical to success, as was setting a safe space and co-creating an agenda. The approach taken to achieve these partnerships and shared missions is outlined at length, and the section concludes with insights on influencing provincial strategies.

Concepts and academic theories are often not sufficient for business leaders to invest in innovative projects and rethink their business approaches. Section three looks at how to map and understand the benefits of a circular economy. It highlights the importance of: identifying the sectors with high growth potential from adopting circular strategies; understanding the signals sent by government regulation, tax systems, and sources of financing; and mapping value chains and various industrial sectors to understand the limitations, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities existing in the province. Three examples are explored:

• The City of Montréal’s experience with circularity is examined as a microcosm of the larger economic system, and for its learnings about policy priorities, actions, and data tracking. Research identified key sectors and related priority strategies, including the food system loop, intensifying shared mobility, industrial symbiosis, enabling circular economy networks, and fostering the sharing economy as well as reuse, and maintenance and repair strategies. Pilot projects in three boroughs showed that about 50% of circular approaches were micro-local, and also that historic blue-collar areas undergoing social transformations showed the highest number and diversity of circular initiatives.

• A second example delves into the mapping of the Québec minerals and metals sector value chain and exploring the potential for circularity for three strategic metals extracted in the province (iron, copper and lithium). This three-year project found that circularity was already in progress in these value chains and that access to detailed information is both problematic and paramount. Forty-one circular strategies were identified, leading to recommendations ranging from carbon capture to battery recycling to additive manufacturing to urban mining to carpooling. The mapping of this value chain further allowed for the identification of three barriers: technical challenges, stakeholder inertia, and profitability.

• A consortium formed to identify and map material flows and actors in the textile value chain in the province is the third example. The preliminary research better defined consumer behaviors with regards to textiles, while also providing a portrait of textile management in Québec. This found that of all textiles that are used in the province, 30% are exported, 48% are sent to landfill, 8% are lost in the environment, 8% are used in other products, and only 6 % are recycled. Recommendations to create and implement Ecodesign strategies, collaborative economy approaches, industrial material recovery, and a textile-specific recycling and re-use network of actors are underscored in this section.

The research into benefits linked to the implementation of a circular economy also included identifying GHG emissions reduction potential in the industrial sector. Four main potential emission reduction solutions emerged: better production and use of heat; use and re-use of cement, steel and aluminum from the construction sector; clustering initiatives in the sub-sector of manufacturing; and better defined approaches for methane, manure, and waste management. Section three also provides glimpses into research regarding climate change and the circular economy for the aluminum, cement, and steel sectors, as well as mapping food waste and evaluating new strategies along the food value chain. High-growth potential sectors and policy priorities are identified, highlighting economic opportunities and impacts, and identifying sectors with significant circularity potential in Québec: agri-food, energy, construction, and metal products. This section closes with insights about informing policymaking for the collaborative economy, and a proposed framework for measuring progress.

Shaping public narratives, seeding ideas amongst key audiences, and sharing information and stories in a compelling way is critical to propelling many people and organizations towards realizing the circular economy. By developing smart communications strategies, clearly defining influencers and audiences, and drawing on a diversity of tactics, communicators have been able to advance circularity as a concept in Québec. Section four explores how to communicate the concept of circularity, engage influencers, and rally supporters. From a nascent stage of public understanding of the circular economy, Québec has built a wider understanding of, and support for, the model. The section looks at the importance of understanding target audiences, developing unique messages for each, creating visuals that bring the circular economy framework to life, and finding the right channels by which to connect to critical audiences. Strategy-focused and sector-specific communications are explored, including for industrial and commercial audiences, as well as for engaging younger generations. Concerted outreach efforts have helped to harness the enthusiasm of early adopters, establish connections between researchers and civil society, and create momentum in the province by demonstrating the proof of concept required for business players. This bottom-up approach to promoting the circular economy with key audiences has led to an essential awakening of governmental organizations, spurring them to support the transition. From communications strategy to specific tools to key messages that have worked, section four gives communicators and non-communicators alike guidance for telling the circular story to their own audiences.

The circular economy entails a shift in economic paradigm, a shift in business models - and a shift in approaches to education. Section five looks at how to educate people about the circular economy. It explores how the circular economy concept is making its way into academic circles and formal curricula, as well as other educational and training approaches outside of the walls of post-secondary institutions. Through specific real-world examples, this section emphasizes the importance of building circularity into existing educational frameworks, while also developing innovative new programs that meet the growing and evolving need for an education in circular economy principles and implementation. Circularity has been built into existing university programs by developing training tools, creating campus activities custom-made for students, hosting public roundtable discussions, and funding the next generation of circular economy researchers and entrepreneurs. This section looks at experimentation with integrating the circular economy into students’ projects, and launching large-scale educational opportunities like summer schools and online courses. Key successes and lessons learned enable academics and educators to learn from the Québec experience as they expand circular economy education in the rest of Canada. Section five reinforces that research, communication, and education have to work hand-in-hand to advance the circular economy both theoretically and practically – and, given the realities of environmental crises, they have to do so without delay.

Two case studies take readers on a journey of what the transition to a circular economy has looked like in realworld applications:

1. The case study of Synergie Québec illustrates the value of the interconnection of industrial symbioses – the strategic clusters of organizations that exchange resources, such as water, energy, by-products, and innovative practices in a synergistic network that brings economic, environmental, and social benefits. This case study profiles the conditions and tactics that created success in building a province-wide community of practice focused on industrial symbiosis, explored through the example of Synergie Québec. This organization unified the industrial symbiosis projects that had previously been operating individually, allowed for various symbioses to connect across the province, constituted the birth of a community of practice on industrial ecology and circular economy, and allowed for the documentation of over 6,500 material flows.

2. The case study of Insertech follows the rise of a social enterprise blending social and environmental missions to becoming a circular economy leader. Originally founded to promote youth integration in the job market, this social enterprise integrated an environmental focus into its mandate as early as 2009. From life cycle assessments of their products to the impact of new regulations like extended producer responsibility, this case study shows how external factors and Insertech’s strategic responses to them allowed the social enterprise to become a leader in the repair and reuse of electronics – closing the loop, reducing waste, and fostering new opportunities for youth while making IT equipment and services more affordable to their community. Research into four scenarios of end-of-life management of computers, as well as comparisons of recycling versus reconditioning from both an environmental and social lens, are brought to life. Insertech’s success story as a pioneer shows how a social enterprise can build circularity into its business model, create positive environmental impact alongside its social mandate, and change the way that people and companies use and extend the life of products.

This report demonstrates that Québec actors have not only shown creativity and innovation in transitioning to a circular economy, but also the long-term hard work that is essential to realizing meaningful change. They have worked strategically at different levels of society, and have embraced relationship building, developing a body of knowledge, integrating in existing frameworks, socializing new ideas, and building bridges where before there were gaps. The people propelling this transition have helped identify the economic and environmental impacts of a circular economy, as well as the barriers and levers that could serve in the transition to a new economic model that contributes to the prosperity and environmental stewardship of the province.

The Québec experience is both inspiring and instructive - but it is far from done. The context will continue to evolve and change, just as ecosystems evolve and change in order to foster continued life. And, just like an ecosystem, the evolving circular economy will require many individuals and groups to act as parts in a greater whole. Researchers, academics, communicators, executives, educators, community leaders, citizens as well as policymakers will need to work together to push ahead the transition to a circular economy, in Québec as elsewhere in Canada. It will take all actors, all sectors, and all levers for change to be activated. It will take bold shifts in business, policy, academia, and citizen behaviors, so that collectively there will be a holistic, society-wide approach for systems change. It will take resilience, and it will take building connections instead of staying isolated in siloes. It will take a great number of people listening to and learning from the circularity journey that Québec has taken and continues to pursue, and then doing what people do best: approaching problems with creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity - and homegrown solutions.

The writing of this report was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Secrétariat du Québec aux relations canadiennes, through the Canadian Relations Support Program.

 Québec experience
 circular economy


  • Emilie Chiasson

    Conseillère en communication - Économie circulaire

  • Last moderation on 01/10/2021 - 23:15

    Author of the page

  • Emilie Chiasson

    Conseillère en communication - Économie circulaire

  • Last modified by the author on 01/10/2021 - 23:15