In 2010, Vancouver set a high standard for environmentally friendly Olympics with sustainability initiatives launched in conjunction with the Winter Games. Now, London's Olympic organizers have an ambitious plan to host the “first truly sustainable” games later this year. That's a bold goal, considering all the other tasks and issues that go with being the host of the world's highest-profile sporting event. Most athletes will have a few minutes or even a few seconds in the spotlight this summer, but London will be on camera for nearly three weeks, with the user-friendliness of its venues, basic services for visitors and event security under the media microscope.
Some of the planned green features, like a giant wind turbine, have already been scrapped, and the unforgiving British media have brought the environmental commitment of the games' organizers into question. However, green-minded London visitors will be able to appreciate the green features that are definitely going to be a part of the 2012 Olympic experience.
Fleet of clean diesel and electric cars
People who head to London to take in the Olympic events may have trouble getting tickets to high-profile events if they haven't bought them already, but they won't have trouble greening their stay in the U.K.'s largest city. Public transportation, including the city's famed Underground (nicknamed “the Tube”), will be working overtime, with users able to zip through the turnstiles with the stored-value, contact-less Oyster card. Of course other options, such as the city's trams, overground rail lines and iconic buses will also be available for people who don't want to jump into taxis to get where they need to go. There is even the Barclay's Cycle Hire system, a pickup/drop-off bike rental service with stations around the city.
After making lots of noise about creating a super-green Olympics, London drew the scorn of green-minded critics by announcing that a fleet of BMWs would ferry VIPs around London during the games. These cars will use VIP-only lanes on London's main roadways. Most of the cars will run on clean diesel, but 200 of them will be new varieties of BMW's electric-only cars.
With the transportation scheme and venue construction holding much of the attention of sustainability watchers, some smaller steps, those that may actually go the furthest toward creating an environmentally friendly event, have largely escaped the media's notice. For example, food vendors in the main Olympic Park will use compostable packaging made mainly from starch and cellulose-based bio-plastics. That means that properly disposed-of wrappers and boxes that hold the vendors' delectables won't be sitting in a landfill 20 years from now.
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, is on board with the Olympic waste reduction efforts. The soft drink giant plans to collect and recycle the plastic bottles used at the games. Coke will also test a waste management system that could be useful at future major sporting events and festivals. Coke's efforts alone could significantly reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste at the games and even help Olympic organizers reach their lofty zero-waste goals.
These composting and recycling efforts will pay short- and long-term dividends as people see that old-fashioned plastics aren't the only option. And what could be a better stage for the recycling movement than the world's most watched and attended sports festival?
Olympic recycling and sustainability plans won't stop with bottles and sandwich wrappers. Some of the venues themselves will be reused. The basketball tournament, one of the higher-profile team events, will be played in a venue that can be dismantled and reused after the Olympics are finished. As with the compostable packaging, this is as much about raising awareness for the future as it is about greening the current games.
The basketball arena could usher in a new era where major events like the Olympics can be played under mobile buildings that can be brought in and assembled rather than built by the host country (which often has no use for such arenas once the Olympics are over). The recycling efforts, both big and small, provide a blueprint (or shall we say greenprint?) for increased environmental friendliness at future events.
70,000 hotel rooms
Getting a hotel room less than a few months in advance can be prohibitively difficult for anyone attending the Olympics. However, green-minded travelers will have plenty of sleeping spots to choose from. The U.K.'s Green Tourism Scheme independently audits hotels and certifies those deemed to have sufficient sustainability features and eco-friendly traits.
More than likely, any late bookers will have to stay on the outskirts of the city, though London claims that nearly 70,000 three-, four- and five-star hotel rooms are located within six miles of central London. Luckily, London's rail-centered public transit network is widespread enough that staying outside of the city's core does not necessitate a car-based approach to getting around.
Olympic Park: Cafes and otters
The green centerpiece for the games will be the Olympic Park. This public gathering space was built on land once used for industrial purposes. The southern end of the park will host a kind of commons area that may be familiar to people who have been to past Olympics, with a pedestrian plaza filled with vendors, shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. The northern end of the park will consist of more overtly green landscapes, with features similar to a nature preserve. Small mammals, such as otters, and bird species will inhabit a large wetlands area that will double as part of a system to deal with rainwater runoff (this is London, after all). In addition to the 300,000 plants in the wetlands area, a garden boasting more than 100,000 plants lines the Thames-side walkway in between some of the games' main venues.
Even people who don't agree with the sustainability efforts of the London Games’ organizers will agree that the level of transparency is impressive. The planning committee recently released the first of several reports, which, in addition to the ever-critical eye of the U.K. press, will assure that every step of planning and preparation is scrutinized.
There will be a strong environmental component to London 2012, at least for the massive number of visitors, who will have plenty of ways to keep their Olympic experience Earth-friendly and plenty of opportunities to participate in efforts that will help these games, and future games, be greener.