Eight ways the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are sustainable: from cardboard beds to recycled medals

The Tokyo Olympics hope to be the greenest ever, beating the record set by London in 2012

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A year later than scheduled, the 2020 summer Olympic Games are finally underway in Tokyo, Japan. Thanks to strict Covid-19 restrictions that remain in place across Japan and the world, the games look a little different than previous years, with fewer crowds and a pared-back opening ceremony.

And that’s not the only thing that is different. The Tokyo Games has set out to ensure it is the most sustainable Olympics yet, with a number of measures in place to cut waste and emissions.

The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games were estimated to have emitted 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the 2012 London Olympic Games, which claimed to be the greenest ever, generated 3.3 million tonnes. Tokyo hopes to beat London’s record, forecasting the event will emit no more than 2.92 million tonnes, despite "greenwashing" claims (more on that later).

Here are eight sustainable initiatives taking place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games…

Cardboard beds

All of this year’s Olympians will be getting their rest in on beds made from cardboard. Designed to withstand weights of up to 200 kilograms, the 18,000 cardboard single beds, made especially for the Games, are designed to be recycled into paper products after use. The mattresses will also be recycled.

Recycled medals

The 5,000 medals athletes are vying for have all been made using precious metals recovered from discarded mobile phones. The recycling effort yielded 32kg of gold, 3,500kg of silver and 2,200kg of bronze from 6.2 million old phones.

Plastic podiums

To claim their recycled medals, athletes will take to podiums made from recycled plastic waste recovered from oceans and donated by the public. Once the Games are finished, the podiums will be used for educational purposes, and some will be recycled into bottles by one of the Games’ sponsors, Procter & Gamble.

Renewable energy

The Games are being powered by electricity from renewable sources. Wood biomass power will be generated from construction waste and tree clippings, while the Games will also use power generated from solar farms in Tamakawa, Naraha and Okuma in Fukushima. Hydropower will also be used throughout the event, and venues have been equipped with only LED lights.

Recycling architecture

Many of the facilities being used for the Games already existed, and have been updated from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. New buildings, such as the main stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies are being held, have been constructed using sustainably sourced timber. Wood from other venues, meanwhile, will be used to build public benches and other buildings once the games are finished.

Aluminium torches

The Olympic torches, designed by Tokujin Yoshioka, have been made using recycled construction waste from temporary housing used in the aftermath of the 2011’s earthquake and tsunami. The rose gold torches resemble the national flower of Japan, the sakura (cherry blossoms), and both the relay torches and cauldron holding the Olympic flame are fuelled by hydrogen instead of fossil gas.

Electric transport

Olympians and Paralympians are being transported around the Olympic villages in specially-designed electric vehicles. Toyota modified a number of its existing e-Palette vehicles to enable accessible and fuss-free transport for athletes, while keeping things emission-free.

Plastic uniforms

The outfits for the torchbearers at the Games have been made using recycled plastic bottles from Coca-Cola. The white and red T-shirts and trousers, which are unisex, were designed by Daisuke Obana, and bear a sash with a chequered pattern that is known in Japan as ichimatsu moyo. The same pattern can be found in the Tokyo 2020 logos.

‘Greenwashing’ claims

With the Games now under way, a new study accuses the Games of “greenwashing” with its “superficial” sustainability efforts.

"The majority of the measures that have been included in this particular Olympics, and the ones that were particularly mediatised, have a more or less superficial effect," said David Gogishvili, co-author of a peer-reviewed study of the Games conducted by the University of Lausanne.

"The efforts the International Olympic Committee is making are important but they are limited and not enough. From my perspective, unless they heavily limit the construction aspect and the overall size of the event, they will always be criticised for greenwashing."

The report claims that, despite Tokyo’s efforts, it is still the third least sustainable Games since 1992.

Updated: July 28, 2021, 2:33 PM