A Zero-Waste Olympics? Nice Try, But No Gold Medal

It’s easier to imagine a world without waste than it is to actually accomplish it. And that’s what the planners of the London Olympics are finding out—their vision doesn’t quite match the situation on the ground.

Zero waste is, at heart, a simple concept—“garbage” is treated as a resource, to be used as fuel or as raw material for new products, and any diversion to landfills or incinerators is reduced to a trickle. No country has achieved zero waste, but New Zealand is unique in setting it as national policy in 2001.

Big-time professional and amateur sports are big-time polluters and wasters, and environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council have focused on getting them to take the green pledge. Some 100 major teams have adopted environmental initiatives through NRDC. Major League Baseball purchased renewable energy credits to offset the 120,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity that would be consumed by the recent All-Star game in Kansas City. The Philadelphia Phillies’ renewable energy offsets are the equivalent of putting 2,942 zero-emission cars on the road or planting 285,000 trees and having them absorb carbon dioxide for 10 years.

Big promises

Zero waste got a major visibility boost when the planners of the 2012 Olympics set it as a goal in 2009. “A development on the scale of the Olympic Park and an event on the scale of the 2012 Games provide the opportunity to create a micro-economy of waste efficiency, putting in place the infrastructure and processes to minimize waste and to maximize reuse and recycling,” said the London 2012 Sustainability Plan. The Games were to be “the greenest ever.”

The plan included design that minimized waste, composting, reusing and refurbishing spare parts, cutting back on hazardous materials and using incineration only with energy recovery. The Games might have had controversies, but this wasn’t among them. It was a win-win.

Unfortunately, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and BioRegional, the games are generating far more waste and carbon than the green plan imagined. Although there have been notable successes and innovations, the report said, “the failure to meet the renewable energy targets set out in the bid is disappointing. Not only did this leave a significant ‘hole’ in London 2012’s carbon reduction strategy…it also sent out an unfortunate signal regarding the difficulties of incorporating renewable solutions in UK projects.”

The Games’ target was that 20 percent of Olympic Park electricity come from “new local renewable energy sources.” A symbol of what actually happened is the onsite wind turbine, because it was canceled (at least in part for safety reasons). A combined heat and power (CHP) energy center was constructed, but it’s reportedly “running mostly on a fossil fuel (natural gas).”

To meet 50 percent carbon reduction targets, organizers may have to invest in offsite retrofits to add energy savings to neighborhood homes. A low-carbon Olympic torch? It didn’t happen.

Part of the blame, the new report said, is on the role of commercial sponsors and suppliers—which were apparently not prodded to be as green as possible. “The opportunity to put relationships with sponsors and suppliers on a greener footing has not been fully grasped,” it said.

Not all gloomy

In defense of unrealized plans, Jay Coalson, executive director of the Zero Waste Alliance in Portland, Oregon, praises the Olympics’ “substantial on-the-ground effort.” He added that the less-than-perfect result isn’t surprising, because actually achieving zero waste takes a huge amount of foresight, time and active management. “Encouraging behaviors and building robust, self-sustaining markets are two very different things,” he said.

The Olympics win credit for exceeding recycling targets and building green. An estimated 8,000 tons of waste will be generated, and organizers plan to recycle 70 percent of it. The reuse of demolition debris alsoappears to have been a relatively bright spot. Half of the Games’ total carbon emissions came from building the venues, but the stadium has 38 percent less embodied carbon than the original design; structures, bridges and highways 14 percent less; and the velodrome 15 percent less. That’s got to be a challenge and an inspiration to the construction industry around the world.

David Stubbs, who heads sustainability efforts for the Games, told the Guardian, “We have kept the spirit, and in many cases the letter, of what was promised, and we will leave a long-term legacy that is positive environmentally. To use a footballing analogy, we did not necessarily win every match but we did win the league.” For American readers, he’s saying they lost some games but took the pennant.

The greening of the Olympics is underway, but it’s not going to happen overnight. Claims of achieving zero waste were probably overly ambitious, but it’s good that the organizers are thinking big—and undoubtedly learning from what happened this year.

Mary Lou Van Deventer, the operations manager at the Berkeley-based Urban Ore recycler, which has three acres of reclaimed goods on offer, describes herself to Txchnologist as a “zero waste-ista.” She says the lofty goal of nil to landfill “can be achieved, but those who are trying the hardest may experience start-up difficulties. It’s important to find out what the obstacles are, then work on them.”

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