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The Tokyo Olympic Committee’s Winning Sustainability Strategy

When it came to creating a winning sustainability campaign, the Tokyo 2020 Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) devised a plan that was superior to the Games’ previous organizers. TOCOG initially estimated the Games’ carbon footprint to amount to 2.73 million tonnes of CO2, which would beat both the emission totals for the London (3.3 million tonnes of CO2) and Rio (4.5 million tonnes of CO2) Games. But with a few days to go until the Closing Ceremony, it appears that Tokyo 2020 outperformed organizers’  own estimates!

Following its motto, “Be better, together – For the planet and the people,” Tokyo 2020 placed a heavy emphasis on maximizing sustainability throughout its operations with an eye on the Olympics’ impact both locally and worldwide. “From the outset, Tokyo 2020 has been dedicated to leveraging the opportunities provided by hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games to help build a more sustainable society,” stated Yuki Arata, senior director of sustainability for Tokyo 2020 Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG).

Photo Courtesy Olympics Newsroom

This mission reflects the International Olympic Committee’s pledge to make the Olympic Games and Olympic Winter Games climate positive starting with the 2030 Olympics as well as Japan’s keen interest in sustainability. Japan’s Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide recently pledged to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) aims to achieve by 2030 a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well as a 50% increase in the electricity used from renewable sources.

TOCOG spent years leading up to the Olympics developing its sustainability program, which involved aiming for 100% renewable energy usage; emphasizing hydrogen energy; reducing CO2 emissions; using renewable materials, and promoting the 3Rs concept: “reduce, reuse, recycle.” While the pandemic-caused postponement of the Olympics from 2020 to 2021 created challenges, the one-year delay also resulted in mainly positive benefits as the TOCOG had more time to develop and fine-tune its programs.  

Toyota 2020’s sustainability projects probably first caught the public’s attention through its use of hydrogen to fuel Olympic and Paralympic torches and cauldrons during their journey across Japan before the Games started. Hydrogen energy, however, also powered the Olympic/Paralympic Village’s Relaxation House, while hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles charged up at the Tokyo Harumi Hydrogen Station (which will be relocated after the Games for use by Tokyo residents). Hydrogen-fuel cell cars and trucks, coupled with electric buses, battery-powered shuttles, and other zero-emission vehicles, constituted approximately 90 percent of the Olympics’ transportation fleet.  

Tokyo 2020’s major sustainability showpieces have been the Victory Ceremony Podiums that were fabricated out of recycled plastics and the medals, which were created using recycled items like mobile phones. While the athletes’ beds being made out of cardboard attracted media attention (although the beds could support 440 lbs.), less attention focused on the beds – and the mattresses – being recycled after the Games. To create the Olympic Village Plaza itself, TOCOG utilized sustainable timber donated by 63 Japanese municipalities. Following the Games, the wood will be returned to the communities that can use it for local projects, such as for park benches. 

One path Tokyo 2020 took to have its electricity be 100 percent renewable energy was to turn to 

direct sourcing from sites like a Kawasaki City biomass power plant and a solar photovoltaic power plant in Fukushima Prefecture. Another was utilizing green power certificates, which allowed venues to convert their traditional electricity to renewable electricity. For instance, the electricity created by Yokohama’s two stadiums during the Olympics got converted to renewable energy through green power certificates obtained from Yokohama’s wind power plant. 

Photo Courtesy Olympics Newsroom

Similarly, Tokyo 2020’s carbon offset credit program proved to be quite successful. 

Nearly 220 Japanese businesses provided support to the Games by offering TOCOG 4.38 million t-CO2 in offset credits. That number exceeds the carbon footprint calculated by TOCOG’s April ’20 report (2.73 million t-CO2) by 1.65 million t-CO2. These figures mean that the Toyota 2020 Olympics will surpass carbon neutrality as emission reduction exceeded the emissions generated. 

Additional environmental benefits arose from TOCOG’s decision to simplify its operations during the Games’ year-long postponement. Not allowing spectators to come overseas resulted in lowering emissions due to the travel and accommodation by about 340,000t-CO2. Additional reductions were achieved by limiting IOC accreditations to only essential and operational workers and restricting the size of Olympic stakeholder groups traveling to Japan. With fewer visitors, TOCOG reduced waste by cutting back on Olympic decorations, banners, and signage and shrinking some venue sizes. 

As part of its mission to have 99 percent of the Games’ waste be either reused or recycled, TOCOG has devised a three-stage plan. Initially, they will attempt to sell or transfer items to private firms for reuse, The next step involves giving the items to local governments for reuse, with the third option being recycling (or disposing of) the items. Computers, consumer appliances, and office furniture will be handled in bulk transfers, while they plan to upcycle decorations after the Olympics into bags, neckstraps, and other consumer products. 

Photo Courtesy Olympics Newsroom

Fewer visitors also meant less trash created, but TOCOG remained dedicated to achieving its goal of recycling 65 percent of the waste produced from the Games. Meals, for example, were offered in recyclable paper containers in an attempt to minimize single-use plastics usage. Additionally, TOCOG created color-coded instructions to make the recycling process as simple as possible for Olympic visitors. 

The Tokyo Games’ organizers realized that the impact of their sustainability efforts extended beyond the games. Tokyo 2020 considers it an important responsibility to show leadership in leveraging the power of sport to solve these challenges and build a sustainable society,” Yuki Arata explained earlier this year. “The true fruits of Tokyo 2020’s sustainability work will be measured not only in outcomes that are directly part of the Games but in terms of long-term legacy and social impact. This is where Tokyo 2020 hopes to see real and lasting progress.”


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