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How fast out of the blocks?

The UK may be basking in an Olympic glow, but the result of one of the most eagerly awaited performances has yet to come in. Will it be gold, silver or bronze in waste management for London 2012?

The bar was set high from the start as the London Olympic Games bid promised not only the most sustainable Games ever but a genuine green legacy.

Some goals have been surpassed, with the Olympic Delivery Authority beating its 90% goal for recycling or reuse of construction waste. Others fell by the wayside, such as the idea for a 120m wind turbine near the Olympic Park to produce 5% of the energy for the Games.

Scoring a zero waste to landfill performance has been one of the Games’ sustainability headlines, but the term is something of a red herring - a target of nothing going to landfill can be achieved by burning what cannot be reprocessed. The devil is in the detail and the key is how much of it has is actually been recycled, reused or composted.

The Games target is for 70%, and to achieve this a colour-coded three-bin system has been put in place at Olympic venues to separate dry recyclables, compostables and non-recyclables. All packaging materials at the Games sport the corresponding colour for easy ID of category.

With most large events aiming for 15% recycling, the Olympic target is ambitious by comparison. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) acknowledged that success would be determined by the public’s willingness to engage with the system.

Waste management company SITA is the master contractor responsible for collecting all waste from the Games. PET bottles collected will be processed and recycled in a joint venture between Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) and Eco Plastics at the latter’s Lincolnshire facility, with some of the new bottles returned to the Paralympic Games.

CCE recycling director Patrick McGuirk says that making people feel good about recycling and helping them to understand what happens to the material has a big impact.

“People think ‘I’m here for a great sporting event and I’ve just done something worthwhile as well’,” he says. “We are trying to hardwire the message ‘Back in Six Weeks’. From research, that seems to really resonate with people.

“We have made the waste bins small, which makes people think ‘is this actually waste?’. It sounds like a minor detail but it has been very important.”

McGuirk is confident that it will be the best at recycling at any major event worldwide in terms of collection and reuse, and says early indications are of high- quality material.

Eco Plastics managing director Jonathan Short explains that the decision to process the material at the Lincolnshire plant, which is not far from Coca-Cola’s Wakefield plant, made a lot of sense.

“We take material from all over the UK,” he says. “Because of the complexity of the material, you need to have a sophisticated plant for it. This joint venture is a contract for 10 years, not just for the Olympics.”

According to LOCOG, figures on how much waste has been collected are unlikely to be confirmed until after the Paralympic Games.

But some anecdotal evidence has suggested that a certain level of contamination has been occurring at the Games despite the colour-coded system.

One potential weak link in the recycling strategy mentioned by industry observers is the compostable element, and how well the public understands it.

At the Games, compostable material includes coffee cups and cutlery. But if what is and is not allowable is unclear in the minds of visitors, there is likely to be a higher level of contamination which could spoil this stream’s contribution to the overall target.

However, other observers suggest that the London Games are on track to meet their target.

Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM) chief executive Steve Lee says: “A good figure for a local authority is [a recycling rate] between 50% and 55%, and that is from a high level of involvement from householders.

“Recycling-on-the-go is traditionally more difficult. What we are hearing anecdotally from our members who have been at the Games is that there is a lot of willingness from the public to do the right thing and a lot of help for them. Typical performance at a big event is 10-15% and the London Games are said to have gone way beyond that.”

Corporate partners of the 2012 Olympics have made an effort to demonstrate their green credentials. The Games’ official restaurant McDonalds is recycling its buildings from the Games as well as making almost all its packaging recyclable or compostable.

Heinekin is supporting BP’s Target Neutral initiative at London 2012 by offsetting the carbon footprint of its logistics fleet serving all Olympic venues.

Coca-Cola’s Olympic operations are being carried out from a warehouse using solar water heating and photovoltaic cells, as well as using 14 biogas-fuelled delivery trucks to supply the Games and the London region.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) welcomes the sustainable aims of the London Games. Campaigner Jenny Bates says: “The whole idea was that the Games should be pushing the boundaries, so you have to set targets higher than they would normally be. If part of the legacy of the Games is also education of the public about recycling, that’s a good thing.”

Some of the biggest concerns have regarded the sustainable legacy post-Games, which included seeing zero waste policies extended across east London, increased markets for recycled products, and a ‘green business hub’.

In July, BioRegional and the WWF published a report Towards a One Planet Olympics Revisted, which said the chance to consolidate the achievements of the Olympics had been lost.

The report states: “On the one hand, there has been a huge success in delivering against an ambitious waste strategy; all the core targets are either achieved or on track. On the other hand, the wider opportunity, and stated ambition to be a catalyst for far wider changes, has been missed.”

But Chris Dow, chief executive of Dagenham-based Closed Loop Recycling, which has doubled its capacity, says: “The total amount recycled at the Games will be tiny, but it’s more about the processes and awareness and generating investment interest in the infrastructure.”

CIWM’s Lee adds: “Obviously the Games was a big event that had a lot of money put into it, but it has shown that the public can be engaged. I want to see our high streets looking as good as the Olympic Games do.”

London 2012 sustainability targets

  • 50% reduction in CO2 at Olympic venues by 2013
  • 90% of demolition material to be reused or recycled and at least 20% of materials used in permanent buildings to be recycled
  • 70% recycled, reused or composted
  • 40% cut in the demand for potable water in venues and 20% for residential buildings
  • 20% of the Olympic Park and Village energy demand in the immediate post-Games period in 2013 from renewable sources

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