The 2020 Summer Olympics hosted in Tokyo this year (which was delayed one year due to Covid-19) made some pretty great strides in the name of sustainability. While, yes, there’s always room for improvement, and yes, the Olympics is still an extremely resource-demanding event, we wanted to review some of the changes they made this time around, which will hopefully set the stage for further sustainability efforts in all future Olympic games as well.
Between 2017 and 2019, Tokyo launched the “Tokyo 2020 Medal Project'' where they collected small electronic devices throughout Japan to use as the source material for the medals that were to be awarded at the games.
The process of creating these recycled medals involved the following steps
According to olympics.com, the Tokyo Organizing Committee collected 78,985 tons of devices from participating municipalities (1,621 in total!) throughout the country.
Classification & Dismantling
The collected devices and materials were then identified and dismantled by contractors.
Extraction & Purification
And finally, the materials gold, silver, and bronze metals were extracted from the devices, purified, and smelted into the recycled medals.
On top of the medals being made from recycled materials, the victory podiums themselves were also made out of plastic collected across the country (and 3D printed!) Not only that, the podiums that were used are also going to be recycled yet again into plastic bottles for reuse! In total they collected roughly 24.5 metric tons of plastic waste from the Japanese public (that’s a lot of plastic!) Collection boxes were placed at retail locations as well as schools where children were educated on plastic recycling and sustainability.
Timber and Structure Re-Use
The athletes village plaza that housed all of the Olympics athletes for the games was constructed out of timber borrowed from 63 regional governments. After the completion of the games, the structures will be dismantled and the timber will be returned to the municipalities that leant them. This was part of an effort by the Tokyo 2020 committee to encourage conservation. Additionally, many existing structures were retrofitted for the games to reduce the need for new construction, which helped reduce not only the amount of resources that were needed, but also the resulting abandoned buildings that are typically left behind.
However, there is existing controversy around the sourcing of timber for the Olympic game structures that were built. Some organizations, like the Rainforest Action Network, have found evidence that suggests that some of the timber used comes from tropical rainforests in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. We plan to keep an eye on these conversations as they continue to unravel so that we can better understand how these sustainability efforts were implemented.
This year’s Olympics events dedicated itself to carbon neutrality through a carbon offset program. As part of the program, Japanese businesses donated carbon credits to the event, totaling 4.38 tons of credits.
This particular effort has caused a bit of controversy as some would argue that offsets and credits are simply not enough because they don’t necessarily reduce the carbon emissions generated. While the intricate details and inter-working of carbon credits is a very complex topic, let’s take a moment to briefly understand what carbon credits and offsets are, how they work, and how they apply to the Tokyo games.
A carbon credit is essentially a permit or a right for an organization to produce one metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions. There are maximum caps and carbon markets that exist on a national and international level so that consumers can buy and sell their carbon credits.
Carbon offsets are reduction in carbon emissions in one area to compensate for carbon emissions in another.
The concept of using carbon credits and offsets essentially allows organizations to achieve carbon neutrality by “balancing out” their carbon emissions against these offsets and credits that they exchange with others. This is why part of the criticism of the games’ sustainability efforts stems from their use of these credits/offsets. In the immediate term the event did not remove carbon emissions from the environment, and carbon offsetting is arguably not a sufficient substitute for outright reduction of emissions.
United Nations Sustainability Development Goals (UN SDG) Alignment
Starting with the 2020 Olympics the International Olympics Committee has made sustainability one of their three pillars (credibility, sustainability, and youth). As part of their agenda, the IOC has committed to supporting the 17 goals laid out in the UN SDG.
The goals are as follows:
The IOC aims to contribute to Goals 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17.
We recognize that sustainability is a process. It’s going to take organizations time to start making better choices and establishing better practices that will put the planet first, while also attempting to achieve as close to “business as usual” as possible. Critics of the games have pointed out that the Olympics in general is an extremely unsustainable event and the best way to truly achieve sustainability is to downsize.
Even though the 2020 Olympics was still a fairly expensive event in terms of the environmental cost, the initiatives that were launched are promising. If the International Olympic Committee continues to pursue these types of initiatives for all future games, we just may find ourselves with a more sustainable Olympics, both for the environment and for the people.