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August 26, 2019

3 ways to help ensure the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are sustainable

By Dr. Ruediger Kuehr, Director of the United Nations University’s Sustainable Cycles Programme

The world’s top athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will receive medals made of gold, silver, and bronze harvested from Japan’s 80,000-ton “urban mine” of discarded smartphones and consumer electronics.

The initiative, among others such as a carbon-offset programme and recycled plastic victory podium project, is part of a nationwide push to “green” the Olympics.

Research on e-waste from the United Nations University (UNU) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that in 2016 the world produced 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste, 40.7% of which in Asia, making the region the highest e-waste producer in the world.

Raising awareness of this issue, and focusing public activism towards e-waste recycling, will deliver benefits far beyond the Olympic podium.

But this is just one step in a longer race.

With one year to go until the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan has been working to solve a number of pressing issues, including how to make the games more sustainable, a central tenet of the Olympic Agenda 2020.

The Olympic Games offer an enormous opportunity to showcase how global events can ensure sustainable practices. But a quick look at the legacies of the Rio, Sochi and London Games reveals that the Olympics do not have a track record of sustainability, despite state authorities’ vows such as “Green Games for a Blue Planet”.

So how can Japan ensure that the Tokyo Olympics hit the sustainability mark?

First, the Olympic organisers must commit to a clear, practical approach to sustainability for the games. The London 2012 games declared they would be “zero waste” and “zero carbon”. But this did not prove realistic. They fell short of their goals by a considerable margin, which reflected poorly on the games. The Tokyo 2020 Organising Commitee has been taking the important measure of evaluating progress towards and ensuring adherence to their sustainability plan, established in 2018.

With sound planning and execution, the Tokyo Olympics can be a pilot for embedding sustainability in global events, and can act as a model for games to come.

Second, organisers must continue developing innovative and creative ways to ensure these goals are met. For example, to meet the goal of reusing or recycling 65% of waste generated from the operations of the Games, organisers could partner with licensed vendors to reduce packaging and incentivise consumer participation through innovative rewards — vouchers, prizes, or the return of an initial cash deposit when recycling waste at designated collection points. “Gamification” — i.e., the application of typical game playing elements (like point scoring, peer competition, etc.) into sustainability activities surrounding the Olympic Games — could also reap great returns by engaging participants without overtly demanding their cooperation.

Third and finally, organisers must establish an open and inclusive strategy process. Seeking ideas and support from a mix of local businesses, city authorities, and special interest groups ensures that everyone is invested in, and cooperating towards, a sustainable Olympics. Japan has seen success here with both the e-waste medal project and Operation BATON, which seeks to construct the athletes’ village with timber donated by 63 local municipalities, to be repurposed after the Games.

The e-waste medal project is a shining example of the Tokyo Games’ race towards sustainability. But whether Tokyo can reach the podium next year depends on adherence to the strategy process undertaken, the parties involved, and the organisers’ continued willingness to incorporate innovative ideas into Olympics governance.

With sound planning and execution, the Tokyo Olympics can be a pilot for embedding sustainability in global events, and can act as a model for games to come.

*Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

3 ways to help ensure the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are sustainable

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