How the Tokyo Olympics are embracing the circular economy

By Lucy Jones  July 27th, 2021

With medals made from e-waste and podiums made from recycled plastics, the Tokyo Olympics are the greenest yet.

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Anyone who was living in Australia in the year 2000 will remember the transformation Sydney underwent in preparation for the Summer Olympics. The global sporting event calls for large public infrastructure developments whose legacies live on long after the crowds have gone.

In Sydney, Olympic Park is now used as a sporting and entertainment venue, but in other cities parks have been abandoned post-Games. With Brisbane just announced as the host of the 2032 Olympic Games, there is much to learn from the sustainability approach taken in Tokyo.

The Tokyo Olympics are embracing the principles of the circular economy to minimise the impact of this year's Games. The organising committee has set a goal of reusing or recycling 99 per cent of goods procured for the event and 65 per cent of waste generated during its operation.

“The Tokyo 2020 Urban Planning and Sustainability Commission has always championed the Tokyo 2020 Games as a model for showcasing a sustainable society, with its range of initiatives including medals created from urban mines and podiums made from recycled plastic,” Tokyo 2020 Urban Planning and Sustainability Commission Chairperson Komiyama Hiroshi said in a statement.

Reuse and design-for-disassembly principles have been adopted right across the Games, from the competition venues to the beds athletes sleep on. Only eight of the 43 competition venues have been built from scratch, with materials like the wood for the Olympic Village Plaza donated by local government. After the Games, the wood will be returned and used in other public infrastructure projects. The athletes beds are made from cardboard that will be recycled after the Games and even the mattresses will be recycled into new plastic products.

Reuse is also embedded in Tokyo's procurement strategy, with the majority of goods leased or purchased as part of buy-back agreements with producers. Where items could not be rented, organisers are working with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to develop resale systems to ensure they have a second life after the Games.

"Some 65,000 computers, tablets and other IT and consumer appliances, as well as 19,000 office desks, chairs and other fixtures, will be used and then passed on," organisers said.

The gold, silver and bronze medals awarded during the games (all 5,000 of them) are made from electronic waste. A total of 6.2 million used electronic devices were collected by organisers to recover the gold, silver and bronze needed to make the medals.

The podiums are also made from post-consumer plastic waste. The 24.5 tonnes of plastic waste collected to create the podiums was donated by households, retailers and 113 schools across Japan. The podiums will also be recycled back into product packaging after the Games.

The Tokyo Olympics is an excellent example of circularity in action. By considering the full lifecycle of the structures and products needed for the event, organisers have set a gold standard for environmental management at the Olympics and beyond.

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Lucy Jones

Lucy started her career working as a writer and editor in print and digital publishing. She went on to create content for Australia's leading sustainable fashion platform while completing her Master of Cultural Studies. Lucy spends her downtime at the beach, crocheting and hanging out with her cat Larry. She believes words can change the world and is stoked to help Planet Ark spread the message of positive environmental change.

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