Olympians will be getting their rest on beds made from cardboard. Picture: Jae C Hong/AP
Olympians will be getting their rest on beds made from cardboard. Picture: Jae C Hong/AP

LOOK: Is the Olympic Games as green as Japan claims?

By Dominic Naidoo Time of article published Aug 3, 2021

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Sustainability is a central theme at this year’s Olympic Games and Japan has certainly gone above and beyond with showing the world that they take being environmentally friendly and sustainable extremely seriously.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games were estimated to have emitted 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the 2012 London Olympic Games, which claimed to be the greenest ever, generated 3.3 million tonnes.

Tokyo hopes to beat London’s record, forecasting the event will emit no more than 2.92 million tonnes, despite claims of “greenwashing” by environmental organisations. More on that later.

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That being said, let’s take a look at some of the ways that Japan has tried to make the games more sustainable.

1. Plastic Uniforms

Torchbearer Japanese Kabuki actor Nakamura Kankuro transfers the Olympic flame. Picture: Yuki Iwamura/AFP

Torchbearer uniforms at the games have been made using recycled plastic bottles courtesy of Coca-Cola. The unisex white and red outfits were designed by Daisuke Obana and bear a sash with a chequered pattern that is known in Japan as ichimatsu moyo. The same pattern can be found in the Tokyo 2020 logo.

2. Aluminium Torches

The Olympic torches were made using recycled construction waste from temporary housing used in the aftermath of the 2011’s earthquake and tsunami. The rose gold torches resemble the national flower of Japan, the sakura (cherry blossoms). Both the relay torches and cauldron holding the Olympic flame are fuelled by hydrogen instead of fossil fuel gas.

3. Renewable Energy

The games are being powered by electricity from renewable sources. Wood biomass power will be generated from construction waste and tree clippings, with additional power derived from use from solar farms. Hydropower will also be used throughout the event, and venues have been equipped with only LED lights.

4. Electric Vehicles

Olympians are being transported around the Olympic villages in specially designed electric vehicles. Toyota modified a number of its existing e-Palette electric vehicles to enable fuss-free transport for athletes while keeping emissions low.

5. Recycled Medals

Picture: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

The medals athletes are competing for were made using metals recovered from discarded and donated cellphones and other equipment. The recycling effort yielded 32kg of gold, 3 500kg of silver and 2 200kg of bronze.

6. Plastic Podiums

The material for the podium used at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games is recycled plastic containers collected at commercial facilities and schools nationwide. Picture: The Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters

To claim their recycled medals, athletes will need to get onto recycled podiums of course! Podiums were made from recycled plastic waste recovered from oceans and donated by the public. Once the games are finished, the podiums will be used for educational purposes, and some will be recycled into bottles by one of the games’ sponsors, Procter & Gamble.

7. Cardboard Beds

Yes, cardboard beds. Olympians will be getting their rest in on beds made from cardboard. The beds are designed to carry weights of up to 200 kilograms, the 18,000 cardboard single beds, made especially for the Olympic Games, are designed to be recycled into paper products after use.

Several environmental rights organisations have criticised Japan and the Olympic Organising Committee, accusing organisers and media of “greenwashing” the event. According to Sustainable Jungle, “based on the term “whitewashing”, the definition of greenwashing is to make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.

David Gogishvili, co-author of a peer-reviewed study of the 2020 Games conducted by the University of Lausanne said that "the majority of the measures that have been included in this particular Olympics, and the ones that were particularly mediatised, have a more or less superficial effect."

Gogishvili admitted that although the IOC’s sustainability efforts are important, they are limited and, quite frankly, not enough. The report claimed that the construction and modifications of Olympic villages, stadiums and support infrastructure cannot be defined as being sustainable as those actions alone resulted in huge amounts of construction waste.

Another focus of the study would be the negative impact of air travel to and from the games. Thousands of athletes, support teams and fans flew to Japan from all corners of the globe. It is common knowledge that air travel is the least efficient with regard to carbon emissions. Results of the study are still pending.

The report claims that, despite Tokyo’s efforts, it is still the third least sustainable games since 1992.

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