Dr. Annie Levasseur
Scientific Director, CERIEC
Co-Founder & Director, CERIEC
This engineering school is helping to accelerate Canada’s transition to the circular economy, thanks to unique partnerships and innovative research units.
Over the past two decades, the École de technologie supérieure (ETS) has evolved into a major tour de force in engineering education, applied research, and technology transfer.
Located in Montreal and a constituent of the Université du Québec, ETS is a mono-faculty university specializing solely in engineering. ETS currently trains about 25 percent of all Quebec engineers and ranks second in Canada for the number of undergraduate engineering degrees granted.
Since 2010, ETS’s workforce has grown by 38 percent to 1,000 employees, including more than 260 professors and lecturers. This steady growth has allowed the university to recruit research talent that’s based on the evolving needs of society. Going forward, ETS is setting the bar even higher, aiming to become a world-calibre engineering school by 2024.
Ecosystem of living sectoral labs lets researchers and stakeholders co-create solutions to circularity barriers
ETS works with a pool of 5,000 partner companies, helping to develop technological solutions to key issues — many of which involve green innovation, climate change, and sustainable development.
In 2020, ETS established a research unit called the Centre for Intersectoral Studies and Research on the Circular Economy (CERIEC). The circular economy refers to a shift from the traditional linear economic paradigm of extracting, using, and wasting natural resources to one that seeks to eliminate or reduce waste through circular processes such as share, repair, reuse, and recycling. “According to the literature, an important part of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from the extraction of natural resources and its first transformation,” says Dr. Annie Levasseur, Scientific Director of the CERIEC. “So, if we decrease the pressure on our ecosystems through circular processes, we preserve our natural resources for longer and reduce GHG emissions and other environmental impacts associated with extraction and production.”
The CERIEC’s primary research mechanism is an ecosystem of sectoral living labs. Each lab brings together the key stakeholders of a given sectoral value chain with researchers from different universities and areas of expertise to identify barriers to circularity and collaborate on developing solutions. “From what we know, there’s no equivalent interdisciplinary network on the circular economy anywhere else in the world,” says Daniel Normandin, Co-Founder and Director of the CERIEC. “We’re also the first lab to use a systematic approach on such a large scale, with all the key players of a given value chain involved, rather than having individuals working alone on specific projects. We feel this systematic view is critical to developing coherent solutions and avoiding transferring a given problem somewhere else, be that within Canada or another country.”
Currently, the construction sector living lab is fully operational and several others are under development, including one focused on single-use plastics in the health care sector and one in the agri-food sector.
“Ultimately, we aim to have eight to nine living labs because it’s such an original way of doing research, and we believe the know-how, solutions, and technologies coming out of these collaborations will help accelerate the transition to a circular economy,” says Normandin.
Research contributes to economic development
The advanced sustainability and circularity research being done at the CERIEC and ETS can potentially solve environmental problems and contribute to Quebec and Canada’s economic development more broadly.
“Many of these new technologies will require people to develop and apply them, so they can help create many new jobs with good wages. These new technologies will also allow us to reduce the pressure on our primary natural resources by reducing waste and making more use of our secondary resources,” Normandin says. “There’s also the possibility of being able to export these technologies to other countries.”
Technological innovations in the circular economy can also help Canada resist supply chain disruptions. “Despite our resource-rich economic base, the supply shortages we saw during the pandemic or when there’s a conflict between countries has shown how dependent we are on different value chains. So decreasing our dependence on other countries through reusing and remanufacturing products can be very strategic to Canada’s economic self-sufficiency,” says Dr. Levasseur.
New technologies developed by engineers play a key role
The shift to circularity is very much dependent on new technologies, with engineers at the forefront. “When we talk about remanufacturing a product at the end of its life cycle, the processes involved are developed by engineers, so technology development and engineers are a very important part of the solution,” says Dr. Levasseur.
So far, Quebec ranks comparatively low in circularity, as does the rest of Canada.
“In a report published a few months ago, Quebec scored only 3.5 percent on the circularity index, compared to the world average of 8.6 percent,” says Normandin. “Our goal should be to increase our circularity to the same level as the best-performing European countries within a reasonable timeframe, say 2035. The Netherlands, for example, has the highest current circularity rate in the world at 24.5 percent.”
To get there, more investments will be needed. “We cannot deploy the circular economy without technologies, so there needs to be more education and research funding,” says Normandin. “Europe, for instance, invests billions of euros for development in circular economies, so if we wish to be leaders in the circular economy, we will need more investments.”