5 Sustainable Features Of The Tokyo Olympic Games
Today's Olympics opening ceremony, which kicks off just before 7 a.m. EDT, will look very different from celebrations past. Right away, you'll notice that the stands of the Tokyo stadium are nearly empty, there are fewer officials than usual, and athletes are donning face masks.
But other features will be easier to miss—like the Olympic torch constructed not from new materials but from aluminum waste extracted from temporary housing built in the aftermath of Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami. This emphasis on reusing materials is one of a few ways the organizers of this year's Olympics want to lower the game's notoriously high environmental impact in the wake of the pandemic.
"The COVID-19 crisis has served to remind humanity of the importance of a sustainable society, where the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of our world exist in harmony," The Tokyo Organizing Committee writes in a pre-games sustainability report. Here are a few of the sustainable touches you can expect to see in the weeks ahead:
This year's games will automatically be a bit lower impact thanks to a lack of spectators. Due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in Japan, both domestic and foreign fans will be banned from attending. While this certainly isn't anything to celebrate, it does mean millions of fewer car rides throughout the city and long-haul flights around the world, slashing carbon emissions.
In addition to the recycled torch (lit by torchbearers in uniforms made from recycled plastic bottles, of course), a few other Olympic mainstays will be made from repurposed materials this year: The 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals will be made out of e-waste collected around Japan, the podiums will be 3D-printed from recycled plastic, and the athlete's beds will be fashioned from recycled cardboard. The cardboard frame and the polyethylene mattress that sits on top of it will both be recycled following the games. In fact, the Olympic committee says that 99% of the materials used throughout the games will be reused or recycled thanks to Japan's top-notch waste-processing system.
In keeping with the Olympics' goal to be "climate positive" by 2030, the Tokyo committee is working to reduce carbon emissions across the entire event. They're using renewable energy where possible (some of which will be supplied by a solar power plant in Fukushima, the site of the 2011 earthquake) and operating a fleet of mostly electric or hybrid vehicles. Any unavoidable emissions will be offset in cooperation with Tokyo's Cap-and-Trade Program.
Smart building design
More than half of this year's Olympic and Paralympic venues existed before the games. The Olympic committee chose to move away from all-new construction to minimize construction costs and energy use. All the structures that were built for the games will be repurposed afterward—including the Olympic Village itself, which is run on hydrogen power from the Fukushima solar plant. Following the games, it will become Japan's first hydrogen-powered town and hopefully a model for future communities.
A forest in its name
This year, the International Olympic Committee also committed to planting an "Olympic Forest" of 355,000 native trees in Mali and Senegal, to protect the region from desertification. Once mature, the forest is expected to sequester 200,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent—a fraction of the games' previous emissions but a start nonetheless.
"By staging the Tokyo 2020 Games as a 'sustainable society showcase' through these initiatives, we hope not only to make the Games more sustainable, but also to share with the world the approaches taken, obstacles faced, and solutions found along the way," reads the Tokyo sustainability report.
"United by Emotion" is the theme of this year's Olympic Games. As anticipation rises for the sure-to-be unconventional event, here's hoping the world unites around all of these eco-initiatives in the next few weeks, too (though maybe not the cardboard beds).
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.