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The Games people play with rubbish

With the Olympics pledging to be not only the biggest sporting event on the globe but the “world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games” the stakes are high. Leaving a sustainable legacy was one of the key promises put forward in London’s bid to host the event. There have been criticisms along the way – such as the decision to appoint Dow Chemical as the sponsor for the wrap around main stadium. Then there was consternation around the decision to bring in, mainly, fossil fuelled BMW’s to ferry officials and dignitaries around (why don’t they use public transport was the cry from some quarters) and more recently the Green Party has despaired at the move to make the official 2012 Games bags out of LDPE.

But one of the biggest challenges facing the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) – bar actually running the events and ensuring security – is probably waste management. With a cast of millions - 8m tickets have been sold, then there’s all the athletes themselves, the media and the vast army of employees and volunteers in charge of security, catering, ticketing and much more – there will be an awful lot of mouths to feed and water; leading to an inordinate amount of waste.

Music and sporting events don’t have a great recycling track record. LOCOG’s corporate sustainability manager Phil Cumming estimates that for most events the recycling rate stands at just 15%. The most ambitious hit a 50%recycling rate, although Cumming describes these as “few and far between”. At the Olympics the target is to send zero waste to landfill and recycle, re-use or compost 70% of waste (excluding construction waste, which has a 90% target) and send the remainder to EfW.

Cumming says this is a first: “What we are doing is out of scale it hasn’t really been done before.” So how is LOCOG going to achieve this? One major advantage the Games has is that the organisers have massively simplified the waste stream in the public areas of the event. There is no glass – which is pretty standard for safety reasons at most large scale events – and no metal cans. LOCOG has worked with its catering partners to ensure that the packaging used fits into three distinct waste streams.

To accompany this is a colour coded three bin system so the recycling waste bin is green, the food waste and compostables bin is orange, while non-recyclables go into a black bin. The non-recyclables bin is also the smallest, hopefully emphasising the fact that most of the waste will be best placed in one of the other two bins. Most packaging used at the Games will have a colour coding on them to indicate to spectators, which bin they will go in. So plates will have an orange symbol on them indicating that they are compostable and can go in the orange bin.

The packaging waste itself has been simplified. “Coffee cups are a classic – people get confused about whether it’s recyclable but our coffee cups are fully compostable,” says Cumming. “Take for example Starbucks – their coffee cups are paper but the lids are polystyrene. So these cups will usually end up in the general waste – although they could be separated out but it is confusing. We want to give people the opportunity to recycle.”

With different household recycling systems around the country and no consensus around event recycling it’s no wonder on-the-go recycling is a challenge. “You go to any event in the UK and you are seeing different arrangements in place. Generally it’s a confused picture,” says Cumming.

There will be no overflowing bins at the Games as a team of people will be working hard to empty them before they get more than three quarters full. Information about the recycling options at the Games has gone out with all the tickets and at some of the events there will be tannoyed messages about the importance of recycling. In busy areas there will be staff on standby to help people put the right material into the right bin. Although, another challenge Cumming picks up on here is the “evidence that suggests people are more likely to litter in areas where they know people are going to pick it up.”

Cumming says LOCOG is “confident” that the system will work but adds: “At the end of the day you can do as much intervention up front but you can’t legislate for what they do on the day. If people want to put the wrong thing in the wrong bin then they will do it.”

If high levels of contamination do occur the recycling stream can still be separated out at Sita’s Barking facility - the waste management company won the master waste contract with Games last year and the MRF there is exclusively dedicated to waste coming from the event. However, if the compostable waste stream is too contaminated there isn’t much that can be done to remedy the situation.

“It’s going to be quite interesting to see how it works in practice and how it helps us to meet our recycling targets,” adds Cumming.

But the story doesn’t end there. Behind the scenes LOCOG has been working with WRAP to develop its waste and recycling strategy and the idea is that at the end of the Games, there will be a piece of research available to everyone – including the events industry - outlining some of the lessons learned and maybe even some best practice. Although there is an appreciation that most events are not able to exert the same levels of controls that LOCOG is able to in terms of the waste streams available at the event.

There has been much mainstream press coverage about the limitations LOCOG has imposed on branded goods coming into event venues – perhaps this is one of the benefits of such an approach. Katherine Symonds, Coca Cola head of sustainable games, doesn’t agree and sees the two issues as “quite separate”. The drinks giant has been working with LOCOG on its waste and recycling strategy and has pledged to recycle all of the PET bottles collected at the Games events for processing at the £15m Continuum Recycling facility in Lincolnshire – a joint venture between it and Eco Plastics (see MRW 18 May).

However, if a more streamlined approach works it could further fuel arguments around simplifying packaging and, possibly, recycling systems. It’s a bit of a social experiment with potential for offering real insight into how to improve on-the-go recycling. The scene is set, bring on the actors.

Readers' comments (1)

  • This is a good story but the vision needs to be that recycling becomes the standard thing to do whether you are at home, at work, travelling or at an event. At the moment there are wide differences between what is expected in all these different situations which makes it confusing and demotivating for people. I think the learning from the Olympics and from other event venues that have already been working in this area will be immensely valuable and it is good that LOCOG have been working with WRAP to make sure this is captured.

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