Atlantic Cities

Olympic Dreams: Raising the Bar on Sustainability

By going green in big ways, London 2012 aims to inspire lasting change.

As every Olympic athlete knows, if you hope to reach the podium, you have to dream big. Then you have to work hard. Really hard. You have to make sacrifices. There will be setbacks, but you must persevere. When people don’t believe in you, you have to believe in yourself. And then you have to be at your best, at just the right moment, and prove yourself before the eyes of the world.  

When it comes to sustainability, the organizers of the 2012 Summer Olympics have embraced this Olympic spirit. They established some very ambitious goals, starting seven years ago, and then set about the hard work of achieving those goals. Now the world is watching, and the results are promising.

The 2012 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are billed as the first sustainable Olympics. To develop this unprecedented effort to green the Games, London 2012 partnered with the World Wildlife Fund and BioRegional to create the concept of “One Planet Olympics,” a comprehensive plan for making the games sustainable from start to finish.

On the public side, the focus on sustainability will be evident to visitors in several ways. Key walking and cycling routes have been improved, and visitors and residents will be encouraged to walk, cycle and take public transportation. The Games aim to serve up to 14 million sustainably sourced meals, with food and drink packaged in compostable and recyclable containers to support the goal of hosting a zero-waste Olympics.

Greening the Games goes far beyond the consumer aspects of the event, however, with many behind-the-scenes sustainability efforts that are impressive in their scope and scale. For a quick tour of the Olympic Park that highlights just a few of its green design features, check out this CNN video featuring David Stubbs, head of sustainability for the Games.

Take that zero-waste goal, for instance. In addition to keeping food wrappers and soda bottles out of the waste stream, London 2012 aimed to maximize the reuse and recycling of material during demolition and construction of the entire Olympic Park. To date, they have achieved 98.5% reuse and 99 percent recycling of materials. This effort to reuse and recycle will continue after the Games conclude, as temporary facilities are dismantled and legacy venues are reconfigured for ongoing use.

No matter how green it may be, a massive sporting event drawing an estimated 600,000 overseas visitors is going to result in significant environmental impacts. But if we don’t try, we can’t know what is possible, and any effort to minimize the impact of the Games should be applauded and emulated. This is especially true because the Olympics have the power to reach people around the globe. Let’s hope that the TV commentary over the coming weeks effectively highlights the sustainability efforts shaping these Games.

The overarching goal of London’s bid for “sustainable gold” is to inspire lasting change, locally and globally. While this may be the first sustainable Olympics, it won’t be the last. In true Olympic spirit, future host cities should learn from London’s efforts and raise the bar even higher.

Amy Southerland is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. She specializes in writing about the nonprofit sector, with a focus on education, philanthropy, social justice and sustainability issues.

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