Toronto: The Goal of a Circular City

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Georgia Evans


The City of Toronto has created the goal of becoming the first Circular City in Ontario as a part of its Long Term Waste Management Strategy (1). A circular economy is one where the need for resource extraction is minimized, resources are used for as long as possible while extracting as much value from them as possible, and products are recovered and regenerated at the end of their lives (2). The waste and inefficiency of our current system are designed out entirely (3). For a city that manages over 900,000 tonnes of waste per year (4), reaching circularity will be a difficult feat.


Today, the linear make-take-toss system lends itself to a resignation of responsibility on behalf of the consumer. One second you have a coffee cup, the next you’ve tossed it in the garbage (or recycling, if you forget that the paper cup has a thin lining of plastic on the inside), and it will never burden you again – gone, like magic. City staff and private companies collect Toronto’s garbage and recycling. Trucks pick up garbage and bring it to transfer stations. From the transfer station, garbage can go to a variety of places. Every ten minutes, a delivery of Toronto’s garbage arrives at the Green Lane landfill outside of London, Ontario (5). Clay underneath Green Lane prevents toxic leachate from entering the groundwater, and methane gas leaks into the air. Green Lane is just one landfill of many that Torontonians’ waste goes to. A significant portion of Torontonians’ waste goes beyond Canadian borders.


Trash is no man’s treasure; it is a cost for both governments and private sector consumers. Recyclables, however, are a commodity. The recycling process is partially automated (6). Recycling trucks will bring the contents of Black and Blue bins to a Material Recovery Facility, where the materials are sorted. Lots of what Torontonians carefully sort into recycling bins is unusable, like pizza boxes with too much grease, and must be removed in order to not contaminate good material (7). The materials that are good enough are compressed and shipped to buyers, who then break them down and sell to manufacturers.


Much of Toronto’s organic waste goes through an anaerobic digestion process– something that is quite uncommon in Canada. Anaerobic digestion entails putting food-waste in an oxygen free environment, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by the waste (8). 45% of Toronto’s organic waste goes to a facility on Disco Road near Pearson International Airport, where waste wrapped in plastic is tossed onto conveyor belts and put through the hydro pulper (9). Being able to put compost in plastic bags has made the task more accessible to people who would not traditionally do it. The hydro pulper removes the non- compostable materials, such as diapers, that make up to 18% of every batch (10). The remaining organic waste becomes sludge, which is brought to anaerobic digesters that turn the waste into digester solids, all the while releasing biogas that is either used to power the Disco Road facility or burned (11). From there, the organic waste is brought to the company All Treat Farms about two hours west of Toronto, where it is turned into usable compost (12). Toronto claims that due to its recycling, green bin, and other waste programs, its diversion rate is 53% (13). Whether Torontonian’s waste ends up in the landfill, burned into the atmosphere, or used as recycled material and compost, the waste management process is complex.

The quality of individuals’ waste management practices is impacted by socioeconomic conditions. People living in a single-family residential units have a 64% waste diversion rate, whereas people who live in multi-unit residential spaces have a 28% diversion rate (14). This discrepancy can be accounted for by the fact that multi-residential buildings have the worst access to recycling and other waste management programs, and many ethnic minorities are not properly engaged and informed due to income and language barriers (15). More than 50% of Torontonian households were not born in Canada, and many who live in multi-residential buildings come from communities that have not practiced recycling (16). Toronto’s services are offered in English, despite the vast multiculturalism of the city. Dr. Calvin Lakhan has said, “waste often manifests itself in terms of socioeconomic inequality, and that is really borne out in terms of who are we asking to participate and what mediums do we use to engage them?” For example, if you are committed to sorting your waste into the proper bins, then the city’s Waste Wizard will tell you how to sort over 2,000 items (17). If you don’t have access to the TOwaste App, or to the Internet, then this tool won’t be of any use. According to ACORN Canada, only 80% of households with incomes under $30,000 per year have home internet, and 65% of the households that do said they have to sacrifice other things like food and medication in order to pay these bills (18). In short, Toronto’s waste management tools are targeted towards people who are already participating and aware of proper practices, and its efforts to become more environmentally friendly will be wasted if it does not include a social equity lens into its programs and work to include more of the city’s residents.


While Toronto has made significant efforts to minimize waste, it only has control over residential waste. Industrial, commercial, and institutional (IC&I) waste makes up around two- thirds of Toronto’s total waste. IC&I waste is managed by the businesses and institutions that produce it. In Toronto, only 13% of IC&I waste goes to recycling and the rest of goes to private landfills or incinerators (19). There is very little data about this waste, serving as a significant barrier to improving waste reduction and management efforts (20). The ability to collect data about IC&I waste will have to come through legislation, because the administrative costs of completing waste audits is too burdensome for companies to do so on their own accord (21). Oversight and accountability for IC&I waste management practices will have to be legislated at the provincial level, though collection practices vary from municipality to municipality. Without proper waste management practices and accountability mechanisms in place for the IC&I sector, Toronto’s efforts to become a Circular City will be in vain.

  1. City of Toronto, “Landscape Analysis: Technical Memorandum #1,” Baselining for a Circular Toronto, August 20th 2020, https://www.toronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/8da9-Technical-Memorandum-1-2020.19.10-FINAL-V2.pdf

  2. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “Concept,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Date Accessed December 22 2020, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/concept.

  3. Ibid.

  4. City of Toronto, “Waste Reduction,” City of Toronto, Date Accessed December 22 2020, https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/long-term-waste-strategy/waste- reduction/#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%20the%20City%20of,less%20there%20is%20to%20manage.

  5. Charles Wilkins, “Canada’s dirty secret,” Canadian Geographic, November 4 2017, https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/canadas-dirty-secret.

  6. Matt Gurney, “Waste land, Part 2: What happens after you take out the trash,” TVO, September 18 2019,https://www.tvo.org/article/waste-land-part-2-what-happens-after-you-take-out-the-trash

  7. Taylor Logan, “What really happens to the organic waste you put in your compost bin,” CBC, October 01 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/organic-waste-composting-1.5291132.

  8. Logan, “What really happens to the organic waste you put in your compost bin.”

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. City of Toronto, “Solid Waste Reports & Diversion Rates,” City of Toronto, Date Accessed December 28 2020, https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/solid-waste-reports/.

  14. City of Toronto, “Solid Waste Reports.”

  15. Dr. Calvin Lakhan (co-investigator of “Waste Wiki” at York University), in discussion with Georgia Evans, December 2020.

  16. Ibid.

  17. City of Toronto, “TOwaste App,” City of Toronto, Date Accessed December 22 2020, https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/towaste-app/.

  18. ACORN Canada, “Join the Internet for All Campaign,” ACORN Canada, Date Accessed December 22 2020, https://www.internetforall.ca/campaign.

  19. Charles Wilkins, “Canada’s dirty secret.”

  20. Dr. Calvin Lakhan (co-investigator of “Waste Wiki” at York University), in discussion with Georgia Evans, December 2020.

  21. Ibid.