London Strives For Zero Waste Summer Olympics 2012

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

When London made its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, not only was “sustainability” front and center, equally paramount was leaving a legacy of public benefits to help justify the nearly $18 billion price tag. Both were also critical to London winning the right to host the games, which marks both the first time a city has done so three times (1908, 1948 and 2012) and the first time the carbon footprint (e.g. environmental impact) of the games will be mapped out start to finish.

When BioCycle spoke with David Stubbs, head of sustainability for the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) by phone a few days after closing ceremonies for the first stage (July 27 – August 12), he quipped that he and his team were merely “at halftime eating oranges,” having yet to serve the Paralympic Games taking place August 29 to September 9. “We have to get back into play very shortly,” he said. “There are a lot of details to wade through, with double venues with multiple events operating at the same time in different parts of the country, but anecdotally it looks like we are on track to meet our targets.”

Those ambitious targets, which began to be mapped out shortly after the location was announced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in July 2005, include zero waste to landfill, with 70 percent of all discards to be either recycled, reused or composted and the balance going to MBT (mechanical-biological treatment or combustion for energy). The recycled/reuse bar for construction and demolition waste was set even higher, at 90 percent. “Every day is different, and new challenges always come up,” Stubbs says. “But we feel the system is right, and I am confident that with a fair wind we’ll get there. Leaving a legacy of sustainability initiatives was a central part of the big vision from the outset.” (While the second stage of the Games wrap up as this issue goes to press, it may be months before the official numbers are in.)

Because of their high profile on the world stage, big budget, long lead-time and specific deadlines, the Olympics hold a unique ability to drive product development, infrastructure improvements, industry best practices and long-term behavioral change within the host country and beyond, Stubbs adds. Overarching initiatives mapped out through more than six years of planning included greening the supply chain, energy efficiency and urban renewal. Rather than invest $12 billion in infrastructure improvements in an already affluent area, LOCOG chose a blighted industrial part of East London to locate the 608-acre Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and will leave behind, among other improvements, a significant number of affordable housing units and 111 acres of restored wetlands. But perhaps LOCOG’s most ambitious plan considering the scope of the event — 11 million spectators, 200,000 staff, 21,000 media representatives and 14,700 athletes — has been its zero waste goal. “It’s never been tried on a scale like this” was the mantra of virtually everyone BioCycle spoke with for this article.

Assembling The Team

Initial research indicated that 40 percent of the waste stream was likely going to be leftover food or food-contaminated packaging, translating to more than 3,600 tons of food and food-related waste over the course of the back-to-back games. Thus, the decision was made to control that waste stream as much as possible and streamline the process. A cornerstone of that process was a landmark Hospitality and Food Service Agreement signed onto initially by 73 leading UK hotels, pubs, quick service restaurants, contract caterers, industry bodies and government agencies. It was drawn up by WRAP UK — a 13-year-old nonprofit that helps individuals, businesses and institutions rethink what has traditionally been viewed as waste instead as valuable resources — with input from the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC), members of the British Printing Industries Federation Cartons Group and UK Renewable Packaging Group.

This guidance ultimately included forgoing all glassware and aluminum in favor of either 100 percent compostable or PET recyclable plastic serviceware (the latter initiative helped along by Coca Cola’s new state-of-the-art recycling plant built 146 miles to the north in Linconshire). It also included sourcing all compostable packaging and serviceware from one vendor and setting up three distinct waste streams: 1) compostables, such as food waste and packaging/serviceware; 2) recyclables, such as PET bottles, cardboard and paper, and 3) nonrecyclables bound for MBT. The guidelines included sourcing sustainably produced/ harvested food and ingredients from as close to home as possible. “WRAP offered huge support in providing us with advice, guidance and human resources,” says Stubbs.

LOCOG initiated a public process to recruit one waste hauler to manage all three streams and for a single vendor to provide some 120 million pieces of compostable and recyclable food containers and other serviceware. Ultimately, SITA UK, a recycling and resource management company, was selected to handle the refuse stream, and London Bio Packaging, a compostable and recyclable food serviceware supplier, was chosen to provide all nonsponsor food-related packaging. (McDonald’s own vendor, HAVI Global Solutions, supplied most of the fast food giant’s needs — with the exception of compostable cutlery supplied by London Bio Packaging — but was still required to conform to LOCOG/WRAP set standards.)

Providing The Tools

David Tozer, former technical officer for the UK-based Association for Organics Recycling and now a member of WRAP’s Organics Team, was appointed project manager charged with advising LOCOG and SITA on which compostable products to accept in the organic waste stream. In some cases, that actually meant new product development. The decision was made early on that all allowable compostable materials must pass European standard EN13432 for compostability. “We began working with London Bio Packaging to get a feel for the number of items they would be submitting, their composition — what they would be made out of — and other specific aspects such as coatings and variations in dimensions,” explains Tozer. “Some required physical testing if they were not certified formerly. And we began to build up a catalog of suitable products for vendors.”

Much of the food packaging and serviceware supplied by London Bio Packaging consistedof Mater-Bi biodegradable and compostable plastic made by Novamont, based in Italy. Cutlery, straws, cups and lids were made with Mater-Bi by two of Novamont’s main processing partners, Ecozema and SEDA, for use by vendors including two of the main sponsors. “An event of this scale requires a broad range of different products, and trying to ensure they are all up to the same specifications and fully compostable presented a bit of challenge,” says Marcus Hill, managing director of London Bio Packaging. “A lot of work went into testing the products to make sure they were going to compost, particularly when we were working with new materials. So the product development side has been a challenge. The logistics of delivering large volumes of hundreds of different products to hundreds of different venues at the right hour of the right day within tight timeframes has been equally challenging. But I think people are looking fresh at the whole area of compostables because of their use at the games.”

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