The Role of Standards in the Transition toward the Circular Economy

Guest blog by Michael Leering, Director, Environment and Business Excellence Standards, CSA Group,
and Dwayne Torrey, Director, Construction & Infrastructure Standards, CSA Group

The vision of creating a better, safer, and more sustainable world is central to the work of CSA Group. This vision fully aligns with the concepts of the circular economy and its ultimate goal to minimize waste, optimize resource use, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This alignment became even more obvious as we joined key stakeholders from various industries, governments, and academia at the first Canadian Circular Economy Summit to collaborate and discuss key issues and opportunities. While the discussions at the CE Summit encompassed a wide range of topics, the need for standardization was a key theme in the majority of sessions. So what does that mean in practice?

Standards can help establish a common language

While the principles of the circular economy are the same across all economic sectors, the ‘language’ different industries, governments, and the general public use is not always the same. Take the example of plastics recycling. What steps have to be completed in order to claim plastic waste was recycled? How do the objectives of recycling differ when we talk about fossil-based plastics versus bio-based plastics?

CSA Group’s research demonstrates that establishing common definitions for recycling of plastics can benefit all stakeholders throughout the plastics ecosystem, from plastics producers through manufacturers of products using plastics and plastic packaging to recyclers. Such national definitions will help establish recycling targets and measure outcomes in a consistent and transparent way, making it possible to verify that these targets have been met. A standard addressing this gap is already being developed by volunteer members of the CSA Group Technical Committee for Circular Plastic Waste Management, comprised of experts representing various stakeholder groups.

Standards can help align regions

As organizations shift toward circular business practices, the harmonization of standards can help support business and trade across regions and borders.

International standards development organizations such as ISO are working on standards for the circular economy. CSA Group is heavily involved in these activities, managing national committees of experts that provide input to the ISO process. These national committees also bring insights from the international forum to both inform the development of Canadian standards where needed, and support the identification and adoption of relevant ISO standards in Canada.

CSA Group also explores opportunities for binational standards to harmonize requirements and guidance across Canada and the United States. This can further help remove barriers to cross-border value chains or when sourcing recycled or reused materials.

Standards can help create circular ecosystems

Standards supporting circularity have been available in Canada for a number of years. For example, CSA Group published the guideline for disassembly and adaptability in buildings in 2006 and a standard for deconstruction of buildings in 2012. However, construction companies are not able to fully embrace the best practices these standards bring forward in the absence of the ecosystem where builders and suppliers can trade or purchase deconstructed materials for reuse.

CSA Group is embarking on a new project, in collaboration with Circular Economy Leadership Canada, with the goal of developing a roadmap covering the full value chain in construction, from the extraction of resources and use of materials to construction and deconstruction methods and the diversion of waste from landfills. We are engaging experts in these areas to explore the current state of the value chain and identify opportunities where standards can further support creating the ecosystem for circularity in construction.

Another example is our work on the circularity and recycling of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles. While discussions at the Canadian Circular Economy Summit focused mostly on mineral extraction and the availability of resources, CSA Group research also highlights the opportunities for the second life of these batteries, an important part of the circularity loop.

Collaboration is vital for moving forward

There are many other ways in which standards can support the transition to the circular economy, making it more accessible and transparent, as well as creating a level playing field for all stakeholders. Opportunities for collaboration and dialogue among all parties, including discussions at key events like the Canadian Circular Economy Summit, will be crucial not only for developing standards in this area but also for their adoption and further improvement.