Cleaning up at the games

Close to two million fans will each create 1.3 kg of waste. VANOC has a plan.

Cleaning up at the gamesAnyone lucky enough to score tickets to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics knows they aren’t cheap. The best seats for the gold medal game in men’s hockey top out at $775. Witnessing the hardware being handed out at men’s or women’s figure skating can set you back as much as $450. And a decent view of the opening ceremonies? That will be $1,118 each, please. Add in the taxes, delivery charges, and mandatory transportation fees, and the opportunity to cheer on Canada on home soil—even from up near the rafters—is a pricey proposition. But there are still costs that the spectators won’t see. Like the direct toll on the environment—an estimated 1.3 kilograms of garbage for each and every one of the 1.85 million paying customers. And the nearly 2.2 million kilos more of waste that will be generated in the run-up to the games, and the long cleanup afterwards.

In a green-obsessed time and place, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) has made environmental responsibility one of its official “bottom lines” for a successful Olympics. And along with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, it has set what Ann Duffy, VANOC’s corporate sustainability officer, terms an “audacious goal” for garbage—diverting 85 per cent of all its solid waste from landfills, starting this fall through next May. That’s no small challenge. The diversion rate in Toronto, where residents fill green bins with food scraps, blue boxes with other recyclables, and pay for what they throw away, is 44 per cent. In the environmentally conscious metro Vancouver area, the rate is 52 per cent. Halifax, which has been running its green bin program for a decade, is only now getting close to its 60 per cent target.

The greening of the gamesWhat VANOC is proposing means diverting some 3,850 tonnes (the total projected waste over the period is 4,350 tonnes) from local landfills. But just how it plans to climb that mountain isn’t yet clear. Some measures, like mandatory recycling at its corporate headquarters and efforts to reduce paper use—or at the very least print on both sides of the page—have been in place for months. So has a computer system to track the origin, destination, and final disposition of each of the one million items—from snow shovels to office chairs—needed for the Games. Another part of the strategy has been a “Buy Smart” steering committee that has sought to reduce waste at its source. Duffy uses the example of the VANOC uniforms, which HBC agreed to ship in bulk packaging rather than individually wrapped.

Heavy emphasis was also put on green practices and garbage reduction in the bidding for and awarding of contracts for services at the 10 Olympic venues, two athletes’ villages and media centres. The cutlery at concession stands, for example, is supposed to be biodegradable. And VANOC is keen to see some of Turin’s careful kitchen ways duplicated in 2010; the 2006 Games produced 90 per cent less organic waste than Salt Lake City through changes to the way food was prepared and served at the villages.

But details of those innovations, and really pretty much all of VANOC’s garbage plan, aren’t yet available. (Sodexo, the French multi-national food services company that will be doing the cooking for the 7,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, declined an interview request.) Duffy and her colleagues are still trying to hammer out the how-to’s with local governments, its 60 paying corporate partners, and hundreds of more suppliers. The economic downturn has complicated matters. So has the fact that VANOC will have limited control over some areas of its own venues. What will McDonald’s—a worldwide Olympic sponsor—be doing to reduce waste at its on-site restaurants? Duffy can’t exactly say. “Welcome to the gnarly world of an organizing committee.”

The fast-food giant is a little more forthcoming. Louis Payette, a McDonald’s Canada spokesman, confirms that there will be source separation of waste, organics and recyclables at the restaurants. In addition, the equipment and fixtures will be sent to other Vancouver franchises for reuse after the Games. And there are hints that new, more environmentally friendly packaging might soon be introduced across the chain. “We’re meeting on that every month,” says Payette. “What we do will definitely be in keeping with the goals that VANOC has set out.”

In other cases, finding a green solution is proving to be a headache. 3M Canada is the official supplier of large format graphics for the Games. Much of Vancouver’s Olympic “feel” will come from the huge banners and images that the company will hang and stick on buildings and bridges, or wrap around cars, buses and ferries. Turning the vinyl into things like floor matting is feasible, says Sarah Tattersall, the company’s communications manager, but no recycling firm in North America currently has the technology to separate out the ink and adhesive. And shipping the material overseas to be processed would defeat efforts to reduce 3M’s carbon footprint at the Games. Company scientists are currently “beta testing” some possible solutions. “It did force our hand a little bit to look into the issue,” says Tattersall.

To date, the only corporate sponsor that has unveiled a fully formed waste-reduction plan is Coca-Cola. The beverage giant is vowing to collect 100 per cent of the containers it distributes at the Olympics, and turn the PET plastic into park benches and playground equipment as a legacy for the people of British Columbia. The 1,400 coolers and vending machines in use at the Games will harness new technology that eliminates almost all direct greenhouse gas emissions. Hybrid vehicles and smaller trucks will make deliveries to the venues. Coke employees will be wearing polyester clothing made from recycled bottles. The coffee cups will be made from biodegradable cornstarch. And the on-site collection bins will be fashioned from the plastic barrels used to ship concentrate.

Coke’s “Olympic Sustainability Plan”—two years in the making—goes even further. In consultation with WWF Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, the company has cut back on air travel and purchased “gold-standard” carbon offsets to cover the footprint of not only its employees, but its corporate guests at the Games. “We keep pushing the technology, not just for the Olympics,” says Nicola Kettlitz, the project team manager. “And some of it makes good business sense. Guess what? I’m saving money.” And as it turns out, making it too. Sustainability targets are now part of management bonus and performance ratings.

But just 10 months before the opening ceremonies, such detailed environmental preparations are really the exception, not the rule. Vancouver is still weeks away from announcing how it will deal with the heaps of trash that will be left behind by Olympic visitors and locals gathering to celebrate. “We’re not just planning for the six weeks of the Olympic Games, but the long term,” explains spokesperson Leslie Boldt.

In Whistler, where the landfill was closed to make way for the athletes’ village (the transportation mall and temporary restaurant will sit right atop the old dump), there is a new state-of-the-art composting facility to deal with some of the waste. Mayor Ken Melamed is hopeful that there won’t even be a net garbage increase. “We’re basically exchanging one type of visitor for another,” he says. But there are no special plans to deal with what doesn’t get composted or recycled by VANOC, or the ski resort’s award-winning diversion programs. During the Olympics, Whistler will keep on doing what it has done with its garbage since it shut the town dump—shipping it down the Sea to Sky highway to Washington state.