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Going For The Gold: A History Of Recycling And The Olympic Games

Joe Bennett | July 29th, 2016


Opening Ceremonies

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With the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, just around the corner, athletes and tourists will be flocking to Brazil to participate and watch as the games unfold.

Which team will win? The U.S.? China? South Africa? Maybe none of them. Will Jamaica’s bobsled team ever make a comeback? Hopefully! How much waste will be produced during the Olympics?

While I can’t answer the first few questions, I can definitely talk about the last one. The issue of refuse and sustainability is an issue tied to the Olympics like steroid use and corrupt judges. So, grab your team colors, take a seat in the nosebleed section, and listen to how the Olympics is getting gold medals in sustainability.

Event 1: Trash Throw

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Since its return in 1896, sustainability was not the primary concern of the Olympics. Between 1896 and 1990, the Olympics was just seen as a way for countries to compete against one another and was even seen as a safer alternative to war during the Inter-war period (1919-1938).

Because refuse was not a concern, hosting cities would see a sharp increase in the garbage heading to the landfill. During the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, U. S. A., 6.5 million pounds of trash was produced in 22 days by those participating and attending. That equaled to six pounds per person, twice as much as the 1984 American average of 3.6 pounds!

Event 2: 100 meter Recycle Race

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The 1990s saw many hosting countries becoming more aware of where their trash was going with the 1994, 1996, and 1998 Games hosted by Norway, the United States, and Japan respectfully diverting waste via compost. Though these countries got the ball rolling, it was the world’s largest island that made a splash in the game of sustainability.

In 1993, the island capital of Sydney competed with other cities to host the 2000 Olympic Games. Their success in winning the bid was a 25-page document entitled “The Environmental Guidelines for a Summer Olympic Games”, which outlined several environmental commitments, including a plan for an efficient and sustainable waste management program.

While Sydney was successful in its plan, even being dubbed the “Green Games” for their efforts, the title for the most sustainable games has to go – for now – to the 2012 London Olympics. These games made the several sustainability goals such as reusing 90% of demolition waste and sending zero waste to the landfill. During preparation, facilities were built with sustainably sourced or recycled materials such as the Copper Box, which was constructed with recycled copper. Also, it was the first Olympics that measured its carbon footprint throughout the project.

London’s efforts for sustainability paid off. It achieved its goal of zero waste to landfill, saving 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide, and saving 99% of waste from building and decommissioning venues. In recognition of their efforts, London 2012 was awarded at the sixth International Sports Event Management Awards.

Event 3: Long Distance Rowing

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Much like London and Sydney, the Brazilian capital of Rio de Janeiro introduced their own sustainability management in 2013. It outlined the various areas that would be tackled by the organizers such as transport, environmental conservation, and waste management. One major concern that would have to be addressed was the issue of Rio’s waterways.

When making their bid to host the 2016 games in 2009, Rio pledged to remove 80% of the sewage contamination from local bodies of water by 2016. These efforts have unfortunately done little to deal with Brazil’s water pollution problem as AP have found Rio’s waters to still be heavily polluted with results ranging between 14 million and 1.7 billion parts per liter. Further concerns have grown as teams practicing in the waterways under the impression that they were safe to have fallen sick on many occasions due to contaminants that may have been unnoticed or not been addressed. Despite this issue, efforts have still been made to revitalize the waterways, something Rio had hoped would come out of their bid, even if they are still working on making that goal a reality.

Closing Ceremonies

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In closing, the Olympics has had an interesting relationship with sustainability. It was never really an issue that was addressed nor was it touched upon until the 1990s where hosting countries began trying to reduce the amount of refuse being created.

The Sydney Games in 2000 not only addressed sustainability in how they handled waste but also as an overall approach to how they hosted the games, the London 2012 games taking this to the next level in how they prepared for the games and even went as far as measuring their carbon footprint. Rio has a lot to live up to when compared to its predecessors but has been making an effort to ensure that they can address their refuse issues while making preparations for the 2016 games.

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