Joining the City of Toronto's Solid Waste Management Services Division in 2017 – first, as a Toronto Urban Fellow, and then as a senior project manager, strategic projects – Meaghan Davis, now the manager of circular economy and innovation for the City of Toronto, took on strategic projects for the infrastructure team, including managing the delivery of compressed natural gas infrastructure to support the city’s low carbon fleet conversion.
In 2019, she moved from waste infrastructure to waste policy when she joined the Circular Economy and Innovation team.
“Particularly as a newcomer to the industry, I really benefited from how diverse and dynamic waste and recycling is as a profession. In the past four years, the industry has given me a broad range of different experiences and professional challenges to tackle – it has been an enormous learning and growth opportunity,” Davis says. “In Ontario, the industry is also going through incredible changes. Increasingly, the problem of waste is being understood not only as a downstream problem but an issue that requires economy-wide transformations in design and consumption – it's hard to overstate the magnitude of that paradigm shift. For these reasons, I think this is an exciting time to be in the waste and recycling industry, particularly for young professionals who have innovative ideas and want to hit the ground running.”
Waste360 sat down with Davis to discuss her recognition as a 2021 40 Under 40 winner, her career, and the future of the circular economy in Toronto.
Waste360: What other industries have you worked in?
Davis: Believe it or not, I started my career in Toronto's arts and culture sector, tackling portfolios that included sponsorship and philanthropy, marketing and communications, event and volunteer management, and board leadership development. I got actively involved in arts sector advocacy and had the privilege of serving on the board of directors of the Toronto Arts Council and Civic Theatres Toronto (now TO Live).
Advocating for the health and sustainability of Toronto's arts sector was what introduced me to the potential for city governments to make meaningful, positive impact on people's lives. This growing understanding of the importance of municipal policy inspired me to return to school and pursue a masters in land use planning and, after spending some time in private consulting, to join the City of Toronto.
On paper, the pivot from arts to land use to waste management isn't the most straightforward career trajectory, but something I have always sought from my career is opportunities to be surrounded by a wide range of ideas, perspectives, and people. These are the most interesting settings to work in, and in my opinion, the most likely places for innovation to flourish. Today's complex challenges need synthesis as much as they need specialization, and the work I most enjoy is the kind that brings together different, sometimes conflicting, parts to build a stronger whole – and this is exactly why I find working in circular economy so exciting.
Waste360: Describe your role as Manager of Circular Economy and Innovation for the City of Toronto.
Davis: As the Manager of Circular Economy and Innovation for the City of Toronto, I lead a team of professionals with expertise in multiple disciplines, including waste management operations and infrastructure, urban and environmental planning, environmental science, chemical engineering intergovernmental policy, and adult education. Our portfolio includes projects, studies and programs to foster innovation in circularity for the Solid Waste Management Services Division, for other City of Toronto divisions, as well as engagements in the community. We work with professionals across the City of Toronto, as well as circular economy champions in business and community through Toronto's Circular Economy Working Group, to ensure our work is informed by a broad range of perspectives, lived experiences, and expertise.
What that means on a daily basis can vary a lot – especially over the past year! Circular economy thinking is all about transformation on a very wide range of topics, from design to economic activity to community activation, and of course in waste management. As such, an important part of my role is to give structure and focus to this huge opportunity for our city, and to create the right conditions for the creative, sustainability-minded people in my orbit to truly excel in their contributions to Toronto's circular economy transition.
Finally, and probably most importantly, my role is to get people excited about what is possible if we mobilize ourselves effectively around the circular economy transition. In spite of the setbacks and challenges we've all faced since early 2020, we have seen incredible momentum towards the circular economy transition, not just in Toronto but across Canada. I am constantly inspired by my team and all the people working hard across Canada on this important work. It's truly a privilege to be part of it.
Waste360: What is Toronto’s goal for transitioning to a circular economy?
Davis: Through the City's Long Term Waste Management Strategy, Toronto City Council adopted the aspirational goal to work toward zero waste and a circular economy. And, Toronto created one of the first dedicated circular economy teams in North America – the Circular Economy and Innovation unit – to develop a strategy and policy framework to make the City of Toronto the first municipality in the province with a circular economy.
By considering resource consumption and material efficiency for their potential impacts on climate change, environmental degradation, and social outcomes, circular economy strategies can play a critical role in helping cities achieve climate neutrality and move to more sustainable consumption models. We recognize that accelerating Toronto's circular city transition will make integral contributions to the City of Toronto's TransformTO climate action goals and will play a key role in building a resilient, inclusive, green, and prosperous future for residents and businesses.
The City of Toronto has made great headway in its efforts to make Toronto a truly circular city through investments in closed loop renewable energy, programs that mobilize communities and help Torontonians make more sustainable choices, and by rethinking the way we buy through circular procurement. Right now, we're focused on develop a plan of action to learn what more we can do, and how we can collaborate with partners in business, community, and government, to operationalize the circular economy and turn our aspirational goal into concrete action.
Waste360: What have you accomplished so far?
Davis: One of the successes that I am most proud of is the completion of the Baselining for a Circular Toronto study earlier this year. The project is one of the first of its kind in Canada, establishing a current context for circularity at the city-wide scale and studying consumption and disposal in key sectors through material flow analysis. The study – which is available at Toronto.ca/circulareconomy – has proposed an inspiring vision, potential goals and indicators that can steer a path toward a Circular Toronto. Crucially, we are now making plans to validate that vision with our community, solicit new ideas and opportunities, and work collaboratively to develop a Circular Economy Road Map for Toronto that will both set a trajectory for the municipal government and inform transformation in other parts of our economy.
Waste360: Where do you see Toronto in 5 years?
Davis: In 5 years, my goal is to see Toronto implementing the actions of our Circular Economy Road Map and, crucially, measuring and monitoring performance toward those goals. Our research has shown that there isn't consensus on how to measure progress on circularity, and that the global dialogue on circular economy measurement continues to evolve. For instance, many of the indicators that we've seen for government are primarily data-driven rather than objective or outcome-driven. As a municipal government, it's critical that we have the right strategies in place to ensure that our work and investments are making the impact that we intended.
I'm also hopeful that we'll see more collaboration and partnership on circular economy initiatives. As part of its current state analysis, the Baselining for a Circular Toronto study identified several data gaps and jurisdictional challenges to accelerating circularity in our city. The silver lining is that these gaps represent opportunities for new, innovative collaborations between the public and private sector, and between various sectors of the economy, in order to meet that challenge. I'm excited for future work in this area.
Waste360: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
Meaghan Davis: If you had asked this question a year ago I might have had a different answer…but today, one of the things I'm most proud of is keeping our work going in spite of the pandemic. The City of Toronto, like municipal governments across North America, mobilized an unprecedented number of resources to respond to the pandemic, prevent the spread of the disease, and preserve human life. Our colleagues and our communities have been stretched personally and professionally – and yet, despite the odds, I think enthusiasm and commitment to Toronto's circular economy transition has grown since 2020.
Our team has completed milestone projects, helped advance national and international dialogue on the circular economy transition, and brought new people to the table to build an engaged community of practice for circularity. I'm really proud of how far we've come, and I'm enormously proud of my team for their dedication, perseverance, and commitment to excellence during such a difficult time – everyone should be as lucky as I am to have such great people on their side.
Waste360: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Davis: Good question, and I wish I had a good answer for you…
In the public service, we often talk about the importance of government modernization. In my opinion, this is about more than just technology investments: it's about transforming the way that we think and work to break down silos and build the dynamic partnerships that we need to truly excel in public service delivery.
I see the circular economy as exactly that: as a silo-busting opportunity that challenges us to think and work differently in order to build a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous city. I believe in the value of a creative and accountable public sector, and I've witnessed its value first-hand in Toronto during the pandemic. One of my career goals is to make a positive contribution to the ongoing pursuit of excellence in public service through modernization, transformation, and partnerships.
Waste360: What do you like to do during your personal time?
Davis: I love backcountry camping, but when I can't get out to hike and canoe in the wilderness, I love birdwatching as a way to relax and explore the local environment. I've also come to appreciate birding as a way to embed circular economy thinking in my daily life.
One of the more ambitious principles of the circular economy is regenerating the natural systems we rely on – to take less from and give back to the planet; and, to ensure that through our economies and our choices, that we are good stewards of the natural world. Exploring the natural world and the species we share it with is an important first step in understanding how we can take better care of it.