Skip to Main Content
Centre for Building Sustainable Value · Sourabh Jain

Canadian circular supply networks in the agri-food sector

Feb 13, 2023

Gettyimages 822650212

A groundbreaking research project led by the Centre for Building Sustainable Value’s Circular Economy Lab is exploring the formation of ‘circular clusters’ (mini circular supply networks) and their potential to reduce food waste and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

This work on circular clusters is funded by Carbon Solutions @ Western, a new impact-focused funding mechanisms which aims to reduce GHG emissions through collaboration, technological innovations and circular economy solutions. 

Exploring the climate-smart circular economy 

Professor Jury Gualandris and I (Sourabh Jain) are working on mapping exchanges of food ‘discards’ in the agri-food sector in Quebec and Ontario to better understand the emerging circular economy in Canada. Our research is timely as many Canadian companies are adopting an important circular economy principle - “one company’s trash is another company’s treasure” - and collaborating to put discards back into the supply chain. 

We like to refer to ‘waste’ as ‘discards’ to give a more positive connotation to the concept of waste. Discards include unwanted surplus and byproducts that companies perceive to have low economic value for their operations but could have higher economic value for other companies.  

We have conducted 120 interviews with 80 companies and identified 130 ‘discard exchanges’ over the past three years. Using the data collected, we also developed an interactive GIS map. The map shows all of the exchanges we have identified in Quebec and Ontario.  

While the exchange of discards between two companies is nothing new, the coordination and interdependence of such exchanges made it interesting for us to study. We noticed that in many cases in the regional Canadian agri-food sector, the exchanges weren’t occurring between a pair of companies but rather among a group of companies in a symbiotic and coordinated manner. It seemed they formed 'circular clusters.’  

We define circular clusters as ‘mini’ circular supply networks embedded within larger supply networks. These have been incredibly exciting to examine as they develop organically without extensive network optimization and planning, yet they seem to extract the most ecological value from discards. In our research, we want to understand how these circular supply networks are structured and governed and what ecological value they create. More specifically, the research will help us understand the enablers and barriers these companies encounter when integrating discard exchanges into their operations.  

Why should we care about these clusters? 

Canada has some of the highest carbon emissions per capita. The country aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. The government has acknowledged that the circular economy plays an important role in achieving that goal.  

The Canadian agri-food supply network will need to play a critical role as it contributes to up to 16% of GHG emissions, and food discards produce another 2-3% when landfilled, mainly in the form of methane. 

Our focus on circular clusters will be helpful in two ways: 

  1. We will determine the ecological value these circular supply networks generate, or do not. The value is defined by a combination of additional ecological costs from processing and transporting the discards, and ecological savings by displacing virgin resources. We will use a life cycle assessment to quantify the net savings.
  2. Secondly, we will examine how firms collectively organize their unique capabilities to create ecological and economic value from food discards. We’ll answer questions that will facilitate the upscale and replication of these networks in other parts of Canada and beyond. For example: How are material flows and production processes organized to valorize otherwise discarded resources? What firms exert the most control over the network thanks to their structural position? What formal and informal governance mechanisms allow firms to integrate complementary assets and extract the most value from their collective efforts? 

We are aiming to understand when clusters produce climate and ecological benefits, and provide guidance to key cluster stakeholders – like circular entrepreneurs, food producers, and retailers – on how they can maximize these benefits. Furthermore, we plan to partner with these organizations to explore how our results on life cycle analysis and climate-smart circularity can be integrated into corporate decision-making protocols in the form of standards. 

About the researchers 

The project is led by Professor Jury Gualandris, who teaches operations and supply chain management. Sourabh Jain is a postdoctoral scholar specializing in life cycle assessment and modelling. Alice Madonna is a visiting Ph.D. scholar from Italy and is also involved in the project.  

These researchers are supported by the network of researchers, experts, and support staff at the Centre for Building Sustainable Value. Sourabh notes that this network has been critical to securing funding and reaching out to various companies.