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Even With Cardboard Beds And Recycled Medals, Olympics Take Flak Over The Environment

Journalists look at cardboard beds for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic at the Village Plaza near Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Village Sunday, June 20, in Tokyo.
Journalists look at cardboard beds for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic at the Village Plaza near Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Village Sunday, June 20, in Tokyo.

Updated July 9, 2021 at 12:18 PM ET

SEOUL — The Olympic medals use precious metal extracted from used electronics. Athletes sleep on cardboard beds. The podiums are recycled plastic. Even the Olympic torch has aluminum that was recycled from the temporary housing used after Japan's Fukushima disaster.

While much of the world, especially the Japanese public, worries that the Tokyo Olympics could become a coronavirus superspreader event, the organizers have not only pledged the games will be safe from the pandemic, even barring spectators at venues in the capital and several other cities. They are also eager to promote these Olympics as the most eco-friendly games ever.

Environmental groups applaud some of the efforts taken to lighten the impact such a huge international event has on the planet. But some analysts say the new symbolism of sustainability exaggerates the reality. Others just call it a "greenwash."

"Unfortunately, the data show that sustainability in all dimensions is decreasing over time from 1992 to 2020," concludes Sven Daniel Wolfe, lecturer and researcher at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He co-authored a recent study on Olympic sustainability, as measured by economic efficiency, ecological impact and social justice.

In this April 1, 2017, file photo, gold tablets of 3 grams (left), which can be recycled from 100 cellphones, are shown as example in Tokyo. Tokyo Olympic organizers said the gold, silver and bronze medals would be made of more than 6 million used cellphones and other electronic devises.
Eugene Hoshiko / AP
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In this April 1, 2017, file photo, gold tablets of 3 grams (left), which can be recycled from 100 cellphones, are shown as example in Tokyo. Tokyo Olympic organizers said the gold, silver and bronze medals would be made of more than 6 million used cellphones and other electronic devises.

Wolfe notes that the decline is happening "in spite of the fact that environmentalism and sustainability is one of the pillars of the Olympic movement." He argues that sustainability increasingly tends to take a back seat to corporate profits and ambitions to put on bigger, more impressive spectacles.

But Wolfe and some environmental groups do give Olympic organizers credit for trying.

Masako Konishi, the climate and energy project leader at World Wildlife Fund Japan who is also a member of the Tokyo Olympics sustainability committee, acknowledges some parts of the games' sustainability plan are better than others.

"I would say the Tokyo Olympics has the best ever Olympic sustainability code for climate change," she argues.

She points out that "the extra electricity that is required for the Tokyo Olympics will be 100% renewable energy. And that could be a very good role model for the other future Olympics."

The games will, or course, still produce harmful gas emissions that cause climate change. Flying in thousands of athletes from around the world itself leaves a hefty carbon footprint.

But Konishi says the organizers have already obtained more than enough carbon credits from companies that are saving energy or storing carbon. She says, "150% of the credits [have] been collected," making it the "first ever carbon-negative Olympics."

Seiko Hashimoto (left), president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, bows with Stanislav Vecera (R), CEO and president of Procter & Gamble Japan, a Tokyo 2020 partner for the recycled plastic podium project, on June 3 in Tokyo.
Issei Kato / Pool/Getty Images
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Seiko Hashimoto (left), president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, bows with Stanislav Vecera (R), CEO and president of Procter & Gamble Japan, a Tokyo 2020 partner for the recycled plastic podium project, on June 3 in Tokyo.

Wolfe points out carbon offsetting is criticized by those who argue that "carbon is still being pumped into the atmosphere, and tree-planting somewhere else on the globe isn't necessarily going to eliminate the emissions that were already pumped out."

Konishi isn't as upbeat about sourcing seafood — or, how to serve athletes sushi without overfishing the seas.

She says Japanese suppliers have lobbied Olympic organizers to water down their sourcing standards. As a result, she says, suppliers only need to submit a plan for sustainability, without actually having to achieve it.

"Basically, they are saying that if the standard is too strict, there will be not much Japanese marine products" available for the games, she says as an example.

A recyclable cardboard bed and mattress for athletes are seen during a media tour at the Olympic and Paralympic Village for the Tokyo 2020 Games, constructed in the Harumi waterfront district of Tokyo, Sunday, June 20.
Akio Kon / Pool via AP
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A recyclable cardboard bed and mattress for athletes are seen during a media tour at the Olympic and Paralympic Village for the Tokyo 2020 Games, constructed in the Harumi waterfront district of Tokyo, Sunday, June 20.

Officials pledged to use sustainable materials — including recyclable cardboard beds — at the Athletes Village. Still, environmentalists have advocated against the use of other materials. Sourcing timber is a particularly thorny problem.

The Rainforest Action Network, or RAN, said it traced tropical plywood from the construction of an Olympic stadium in Tokyo to forests of Indonesia, where deforestation has been a problem.

"We actually found that the majority of the Indonesian plywood that the Olympic organizers sourced was coming from rainforests that are being converted into palm oil plantations," explains RAN campaigner Hana Heineken.

Such conversion destroys some of the oldest forests on Earth, which are home to endangered orangutans.

Heineken says the action network complained to Olympic organizers, who rejected the complaint.

She says she thinks about the stadiums that contain the plywood that will be partly or completely empty of spectators due to the pandemic.

"What was all this for," she asks. "Was it worth it to destroy the rainforests in Indonesia? Our view is: this was a real waste."

Whatever standards the games set for sustainability, researcher Sven Daniel Wolfe adds, they're likely to be overshadowed by the bigger crisis.

"In the final analysis," he says, "I think Tokyo will be remembered more as the pandemic games, rather than any claims to sustainability."

Chie Kobayashi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.