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Can the Tokyo Games get a perfect recycling score?

The Olympics are now in full swing with more than 11 500 athletes competing in Tokyo to claim gold medals in 33 different sports. At a time of high visibility for recycling and waste prevention, this begs the question: what is being done to give the major event a sustainable edge?

It’s safe to say that Japan is not looking to cut any corners as host country for the – originally – 2020 Olympics because it has spent over US$ 10 billion (EUR 8.5 billion) on the 16-day worldwide competition. Before the pandemic arrived and safety became such a high priority, the Olympic Commission announced it was to be the ‘most sustainable one’ since the Games started in 1896. But what does that mean exactly? After all, companies and organisations make lofty claims about eco-goals all the time…

E-scrap medals

First of all, the 5 000 Olympic and Paralympic medals were made with precious metals sourced from Japan’s discarded electronics. Gold, silver and a mixture of bronze and zinc (for the traditionally copper medals) were extracted from a total of 6.2 million end-of-life mobile phones and other small consumer devices. This is roughly 80 000 tonnes of material. 

Side note: I would love to see ‘behind the scenes’ footage of how the e-scrap medals were made.

I imagine it would make an interesting documentary, one that could be accompanied by an exhibition about innovative recycling solutions and scrap art. Such an expo could even have an interactive recycling workshop to allow visitors to participate in the process instead of simply reading about it.     

Victory podium

Naturally, the post-coronavirus Games are under extra scrutiny due to ongoing health concerns. This means winning athletes will be putting on the recycled medals themselves during the victory ceremony. A fun fact is that they will be standing on a podium made from recycled post-consumer and ocean plastics. 

No fewer than 113 schools across Japan operated collection schemes to contribute to the goal. The great thing about this is that youngsters were engaged to think about recycling in a competitive, global context; sparking challenges between students about who could collect the most material. I do wonder what will become of the Victory Podium once the Games are over – no word on that yet.

Fukushima torch

And let’s not forget that the Olympic torch used to open this global sports event was made from recycled aluminium. Not just that, the scrap was sourced from emergency shelters built to provide housing in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. 

Sadly, the five-month ‘grand tour’ of the torch, during which it would have been on display in 859 Japanese municipalities, was called off because of the pandemic.

As an aside, the tour would have been a great opportunity to boost the nation’s metals recycling industry. People have a tendency to flock to monuments and flaunt themselves on social media. A special #OlympicRecyclers campaign could have made an impact on the public, perhaps even drawing greater investment. 

Zzzzz

Another thing that’s different this time are the beds of everyone staying at the Olympic Village. The frames are made from recyclable cardboard with mattresses formed of polyethylene materials that will be reused for plastic products after the Games. The beds can easily withstand 200kg and are said to be both comfortable and strong enough to accommodate heavy wrestlers and weightlifters.

At the moment, Japan recycles only about 30% of paper and cardboard packaging so I’m curious to see what kind of products these beds will be recycled into. And, of course, it still remains to be seen how much of the waste generated during the Games will be collected and, ultimately, recycled. 

The London 2012 Olympics recycled or reused 70% of the waste generated during the event. Will Tokyo match this performance? Or can it do better?

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