An Olympic Effort to Reduce Waste

The Olympics traditionally host more than half of a million spectators per day. This year's Tokyo Olympics in Japan are a year late, and happening amidst a resurgence in COVID-19. While waste generated at these Games will invariably be impacted by the restricted attendance, it does give pause to reflect on past Games and the magnitude of waste generated and the challenges in managing it all.

For example, at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, attendees created more than 17 million tonnes of waste in only six days. While total waste numbers expected at the reduced-capacity Tokyo Olympics will be considerably less than that, there will undoubtedly be waste-related challenges.

The Tokyo Olympics expects around 11,000 athletes to compete, with an additional 4,000 or so competing in the Paralympics. That is more than 15,000 people living, breathing, and creating waste in the equivalent of a small town in the middle of Tokyo.

One way the Tokyo Olympics has worked to mitigate the impact of housing this many temporary residents is by building their bed frames out of recyclable cardboard, and mattresses out of a material that can be recycled into plastic products after the Games. This will ease the traditional post-Olympic stress of what to do with tens of thousands of temporary beds.

The Tokyo Olympics have also brought sustainability right to the most visible part of the Olympic Games: the medals. The gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics are made from 100% recycled material, most of it coming from discarded electronics. Organizers began collecting discarded electronics years ago to mine the waste for precious metals. Thanks in part to the Japanese public, the Tokyo Olympic Committee had collected all of the gold, and most of the bronze and silver for the medals by 2019. 

The podiums, too, will be made from recycled materials, meaning that when Olympians stand atop their podiums to receive their medals, the entire interaction will be conducted with recycled materials. The podiums, too, will then be recycled after the Games.

Overall, the Tokyo Olympics are striving for as close to a circular waste economy as possible, with reduced dependence on purchased or created equipment due to rentals and leases, reduction of food waste, reduction of packing materials, a commitment to building the Athletes’ Olympic Village from sustainable materials, and a commitment to recycle or reuse 65% of the waste generated by the Games.   The Olympics have long served as an example to the world of unity and peaceful cooperation among nations. With Tokyo 2021’s commitment to sustainability, they will now also serve as an example of reducing waste. 

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