Let the recycling begin

Vancouver’s Olympics get serious about the Games’ environmental and social impact

090414_olympicsUpon entering for the first time the magnificent 2.6-hectare sprawl of the Richmond Olympic Oval, most people look upward in awe at the glorious arc of its wooden ceiling—a million board feet of timber reclaimed from forests decimated by B.C.’s mountain pine beetle infestation. And then there are those of a more base nature who look downward—in puzzlement—at the facility’s toilets. Well, not at the toilets so much as the signs above them: “Non-potable water. DO NOT DRINK,” they warn. One’s initial response is, “Well, duh!” Or, “Can’t be worse than American beer.” Or, “Someone should tell them that dogs can’t read.”

Still, a sign like that gets a body thinking. The fact is that most potties in Canada are charged with perfectly sweet, municipally treated drinking water—quite a waste. The state-of-the-art Richmond oval, site of next year’s Olympic long-track speed skating events, is a rare exception. Its toilets are charged with rainwater funnelled off its arching roof. This explains the pro forma health warnings, certain to give Olympic visitors a curious impression of Canadian bathroom habits. The rest of the rain runoff, used to irrigate trees and landscaping, flows into a picturesque outdoor retention pond surrounded by walkways and public art. Viewed in that warm green light, the inability to drink from the toilets doesn’t seem much of a sacrifice.

The greening of the gamesThe $178-million oval is one of the three largest sports venues purpose-built for the 2010 Winter Games. It is a signature piece of the new, and conflicted, Olympic ethos. It is no longer enough to be a cathedral to celebrate the Games’ ideals of “faster, higher stronger.” A new buzzword, “sustainable,” is added to those three—part of the International Olympic Committee’s attempt to mitigate the massive carbon footprint and social disruption that results when you invite the world to play in your sandbox. In Vancouver’s case, that means coping with the vapour trails and detritus generated by almost 7,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and officials and 10,000 media arriving from some 80 countries—as well as the to-and-fro of 25,000 volunteers and the holders of some 1.85 million event tickets.

In Vancouver, the challenge falls to Ann Duffy, corporate sustainability officer for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). Her job is to ensure VANOC meets its stated commitment for a “triple bottom line,” a Games that are not only economically sound, but socially and environmentally responsible, too. Sustainability plays a role in every decision that VANOC makes, she says. “It influences the kind of people you hire, the kinds of suppliers you want to work with and the sponsors you want to play with.”

In VANOC’s case—and with a host of environmental and social critics watching its every move—it means a commitment, as John Furlong, the CEO of VANOC, puts it, “to address the pressing issues of our time.” From an environmental point of view, that means building its venues to the highest practical standards, and designing them as multi-purpose facilities for use after the Games. But it also means setting up with its sponsor Rona an inner-city job-training program to provide a pool of construction labour. It means a Buy Smart program to audit national and international suppliers to determine they don’t violate the environmental, labour and safety laws in their respective countries. (So Olympic mascots, for instance, are made for children, not by children.) It means guaranteeing Aboriginal participation in the Olympic workforce, in merchandising, and in the art and cultural aspects of the Games. It means creating a legacy of social housing and opportunities “for people who might not typically benefit from a mega-event,” says Furlong.

Opinions are divided on VANOC’s success. While the IOC is content, VANOC’s actions don’t go far enough to satisfy many B.C.-based social and environmental activists—though in fairness it would take the cancellation of the Olympics, and a redeployment of its budget to any number of causes, to achieve that. On the other hand, some question if an excess of do-goodery has caused sustainability overload. Did, for instance, VANOC’s requirements for Vancouver to design and produce, on a brutally tight time frame, an ultra-green athletes’ village contribute to Vancouver’s financing woes? The developer, with the city reluctantly paying the bills, is racing to complete the now $1-billion waterfront condominium complex, complete with native plants on its roofs, a heating system that extracts warmth from local sewers and, yes, rainwater toilets—a fixture in many of the new venues.

Duffy is confident that, post-Games, the village—an eight-block mini-community of condominiums, apartments, a recreation centre, and shops—will prosper as a showcase of green technology. She notes that the previously contaminated site, a former shipyard, had contributed nothing to the False Creek waterfront but toxic leachate—while the athletes’ village in Whistler, which will later be used as affordable housing, is built by a discontinued landfill. “If we take a longer view of what the athletes’ village represents, and frankly all our venues, [it’s] an opportunity to build something on an existing site and leave it better than we found it,” she says.

Successive Olympic Games have greened, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, since the mid-1990s when the IOC added “environment” as a third Olympic pillar after sport and culture. Often, it went little beyond the distribution of mission statements printed on recycled paper, and the distribution of bins to sort the mountains of paper, plastic and trash such events generate. During the Athens Summer Games in 2004, the water bottles may have been recycled, but just four years later only one of the 22 venues built for the Games remained in active public use, a gross waste of money and resources.

By any measure, Vancouver has raised the bar. “Vancouver and London [host of the 2012 Summer Games] are the first to take on this triple bottom-line sustainability platform,” says Duffy. Some examples: at the Whistler Sliding Centre, waste heat from the ice refrigeration plant heats nearby buildings. It, and all Whistler sites, were planned to limit vegetation clearing and to chip, compost and reuse, on-site, all wood waste. The Whistler Olympic Park, which was redesigned to reduce its footprint by 30 per cent, will leave a legacy of 50 km of cross-country ski trails.

In Vancouver, a gravel parking lot became the Olympic curling centre, which will morph into a combination curling club, hockey rink, library and gymnasium, all heated by waste warmth from the ice-making equipment and an adjoining swimming pool. Duffy says building to such environmental standards adds two to seven per cent to the cost, an investment that can be regained in as little as five years. “It’s obviously a lot more efficient and cost-effective to operate.”

The speed skating oval presented the greatest challenge. What to do with a building large enough to house four jumbo jets, once the athletes are gone? When officials in suburban Richmond considered whether to bid to build and manage the facility, they first toured some of the existing rinks. “The main question they asked was, ‘If you could do anything differently what would it be?’ ” says Aran Kay, communications coordinator for the oval. “The almost unanimous answer was that they would have planned for post-Games more thoroughly.” As a result, Richmond designed a building that will, realistically, see little use as a long-track oval once the Games are done. There is already a world-class facility in Calgary. Instead, it is built to meet Richmond’s less esoteric sporting needs: eight full-sized basketball or volleyball courts, two Olympic-sized skating rinks, a 23,000-sq.-foot fitness centre, a 200-m running track, a gymnastics floor and a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre. “The public is demanding that there be more sustainable building practices, and this is a really good example,” says Kay.

Still, there is no getting around the fact that the Olympics are a big, messy business. The David Suzuki Foundation, at VANOC’s request, has calculated the Games’ direct and indirect carbon footprint at 328,000 tonnes, equivalent to the annual output of some 65,600 cars. Almost 70 per cent of that is the result of the massive airlift required to get all the players to Vancouver. Some 70 Olympic and national team athletes have called on VANOC to make the Games totally carbon neutral. The Suzuki foundation estimates that would cost VANOC, or more likely a sponsor, about $5 million to purchase so-called carbon offsets, investments in things like wind, solar or biomass energy projects, often in developing countries. VANOC has committed to taking “responsibility” to offset the estimated 110,000 tonnes of emissions under its direct control, things like the Games operation, venue construction and travel by the Olympic family. How that plan will work and who will pay remains to be seen.

Duffy says the Games will leave a showcase of environmentally sound practices, from biodegradable dinnerware at the venues to those curious toilets. In this, she gets qualified support from Kathryn Molloy, the retired executive director of the Sierra Club of B.C., and a member of VANOC’s advisory board on sustainability. The Games’ ability to be a catalyst for change, she says, “probably outweighs the negatives.” Still, Molloy’s bottom line, which VANOC dutifully reports on its website, is this: “The most sustainable Olympics would be no Olympics.” Hosting the lumbering giant grows ever more complicated. To the IOC’s official three priorities, sport, culture, and environment, a fourth dimension has arrived, unbidden: guilt.

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