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The roundabout journey for the MV Bavaria and the now-infamous garbage has become an unfortunate symbol of the murky global trade in waste – mainly from rich countries to poorer ones.

NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Mark your calendar. The World Circular Economy Forum is coming to Canada. Next fall. Toronto.

The federal government announced the big event in a news release this week, proclaiming that Canada has “already started building a circular economy.”

Just what is a circular economy? Good question. It’s really just a fancy way of saying “reduce, reuse and recycle.” It’s about slowing the depletion of finite natural resources that produce ever-expanding heaps of throw-away products.

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By "circular,” Ottawa likely isn’t thinking about the voyage of the MV Bavaria. That’s the cargo ship that recently set sail for Vancouver from the Philippines carrying 1,500 tonnes of rotting Canadian household waste that was illegally shipped there six years ago, disguised as recyclable plastic.

The roundabout journey for the now-infamous garbage has become an unfortunate symbol of the murky global trade in waste – mainly from rich countries to poorer ones.

The garbage saga is a microcosm of a much larger problem. It’s a lot easier to talk about the circular economy than to make it, well, economic. A recent investigation by Globe and Mail reporters Jeff Lewis and Molly Hayes found that Canada and other developed countries are facing a crisis caused by a rising mountain of trash, much of it plastic that no one wants to buy or even haul away for free. China, once the world’s largest buyer of recyclable materials, abruptly banned imports last year of two-dozen types of products, including most plastics. And the impact is still reverberating, undermining the fragile economics of municipal and industrial recycling.

China was a key spoke in the “circular economy.” And most Canadians were blissfully unaware. Households and companies dutifully separate and dispose of waste, assuming there is a home – and a market – for all this aluminum, plastic, paper and compost.

For some of this waste, there is a market. For plastic, not so much. Only 9 per cent of the 3.2 million tonnes of plastic waste generated each year in Canada is recycled, according to a recent study by Deloitte for Environment and Climate Change Canada. Most of the rest ends up in landfills, including a lot of that stuff put in our blue boxes.

But buyers are getting picky about what they’ll take, and in what condition. And much of it ends up being sold offshore.

Rising costs are wrecking the economics of municipal recycling programs. To deal with the crisis, the Ontario government is looking at shifting recycling costs from municipalities to the companies that generate plastic and paper-based packaging in the first place.

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One of the keys to making the circular economy work is to cut the waste stream by being smarter and stingier about what goes into it. Wiser use of resources could add as much as US$2-trillion dollars to the global economy by 2050, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations-sponsored International Resource Panel.

There are, of course, many other issues to consider. Better resource efficiency will inevitably kill some jobs – in farming, oil extraction, mining, forestry and the like – while creating new ones in other sectors. Research suggests net job creation will outweigh the destruction, at least globally.

For a hewer of wood and drawer of water, such as Canada, the job balance may not look as good.

There will be winners and losers throughout the economy. Consider the auto industry. In a more circular economy, people will drive less, share cars and turn to electric vehicles. Unfortunately, Canada’s auto sector is not well positioned to thrive in that environment.

And if wealthier countries build a circular economy that doesn’t factor in its impact on poorer countries, the effort will be counterproductive. Consider those drop-off bins for used clothing. Maybe you think your donations are going to people in your city or neighbourhood. Research by University of Toronto economist and associate professor Garth Frazer found that a significant share of used clothes collected in the United States ends up in Africa, undermining the development of a home-grown garment industry in some of these countries.

Exporting Canadian plastic waste to countries such as Malaysia or the Philippines may help sustain municipal recycling programs in this country. But when much of that waste ends up in landfills over there, the economy and the planet is no further ahead.

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If hosting a conference helps find answers, great.

But what Canada really needs is more honesty and transparency about what we’re doing in pursuit of the circular economy.

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