York Region is going in circles – and that’s a good thing

Jennifer McLaughlin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions come from making and using products and food, but our environment cannot sustain this.

York Region is helping to reverse the trend with a circular economy.

The region recently completed a one-year, fifteen-community knowledge sharing and action planning project pilot called the Circular Cities and Regions Initiative (CCRI). The program encourages communities to learn and share best practices for implementing circular economy strategies.

In a circular economy, nothing is wasted. Waste is considered a resource, not a cost. As much value as possible is retained and recovered from resources by reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, repurposing, or recycling products and materials.

Circularity also recognizes that direct action to reduce emissions is not enough to lessen impacts on climate change and, in doing so, reach climate targets.

Instead, municipalities must seek to address climate change through internal operations and community transformation to a low-carbon economy.

The Circular Economy Roadmap outlines York Region’s mission to make positive changes.

The roadmap “will help further advance our vision of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2051, as well as other key priorities, such as climate change mitigation, energy and water demand management, and economic vitality, all aimed at improving the quality of life for our current and future residents,” said Wayne Emmerson, York Region Chairman and CEO.

The Making Old Asphalt New Again recycling program is just one example of circularity in the region. Road contractors collect and grind up old asphalt for future road projects. The program has already diverted over 112,000 tons of asphalt from landfill with a savings of approximately $1.8 million.

Another is York Region’s office building at 17150 Yonge Street, built to LEED gold Sustainability Standards in 2021. Over 86 per cent of the project’s construction waste was diverted from landfills or used on other projects, and the project used locally-sourced and recycled construction materials where possible. Features of the building, such as low-flow water fixtures and a 25 per cent green roof, lessen environmental impact.

The region intends to lead by example and make the same sustainable changes in operations and policy as it expects from residents and businesses. Municipal leadership will play a significant role in driving the change through community engagement and education.

“Municipal governments are playing a strong role in supporting the transition to the circular economy transition through their policies and programs,” said City of Vaughan Regional Councillor Mario Ferri, Chair of Environmental Services. “This represents an enormous opportunity for local governments to influence markets and support innovation while meeting waste reduction, climate change, and asset management goals.”

University of Winnipeg professors Sylvie Albert (business and economics) and Manish Pandey (economics) co-authored an article on theconversation.com that explains how a city must involve its residents to be successful in the quest for sustainability. In “To build sustainable cities, involve those who live in them,” they write that “cities need to provide opportunities and guidance for their residents to help them make progress.” In doing so, “everybody wins in the long run — quality of life improves, urban governance is more effective, and businesses develop more efficient models.”

York Region and its municipalities offer several ways for residents to participate in the circular economy.

Lendery programs at local libraries allow residents to borrow versus purchase. Curbside Giveaway Days encourage residents to give away gently used items instead of putting them in the garbage. Repair Cafes at the libraries provide free space, tools, and guidance to repair and keep items in use instead of throwing them out.

Residential use of blue recycling and green composting bins – or backyard composters – go a long way to help minimize garbage. Neighbourhood recycling depots accept various items for recycling, such as Styrofoam, metal waste, and plastic bags. Placing damaged or unwanted textiles in easy-access textile recycling bins and eliminating the use of single-use plastics are other ways that residents can contribute to the change.

York Region Food Network offers programming that supports both community well-being and sustainability.

Since 2013, the food gleaning program has enabled low and moderate-income residents to visit local farmers’ fields to gather fruits and vegetables left after harvest. In 2021, this program distributed over 14 tonnes of healthy and nutritious gleaned produce to 2,638 people.

Businesses can help too. York Region and its local municipalities are combining efforts to support those that want to reduce single-use items.

Since 2021, the region’s Circular Economy Initiatives Fund (CEIF) awards a combined $100,000 annually to six non-profit organizations that engage in community-driven, innovative projects that reduce waste and advance the circular economy.

The Circular Economy Working Group brings together volunteer members from local businesses, community groups, and academia to provide expert advice and feedback on the region’s circular economy programs, policies, and plans.

A 92 per cent diversion from landfill in 2021, exceeding the region’s goal of 90 per cent, is just one example of how the region, its nine municipalities, residents, and businesses are combining efforts to achieve a more sustainable future.

 

Photo: Textiles account for approximately five to seven per cent of York Region’s waste. Textile recycling bins in four locations throughout Stouffville help divert textile waste. 

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