Rio 2016 Olympics: How sustainable is the greatest show on Earth?

It was dubbed a "green games for a blue planet" during the bidding process, but the event has since become shrouded in controversy, with venues contaminated with waste, waters infected with superbugs, and the host city's air quality remaining at deadly levels. So, just how 'sustainable' is the Rio 2016 Olympics?

“This is definitely not ‘Olympic’ air,” says University of Sao Paulo pathologist and committee member of the World Health Organisatin (WHO) Paulo Saldiva.

Saldiva has just contributed to a study with Reuters which revealed that the air in Rio is now dirtier than that of any Olympic city since the 1980s, with the exception of Beijing in 2008. More than 5,400 people died in Rio because of air pollution in 2014 – the most recent year of available data – according to WHO’s mortality methodology. 

The water quality is no better. The nearby Guanabara Bay, set host sailing and windsurfing events, is reportedly polluted with viruses as tonnes of human sewage was once being pumped into the waters on a daily basis, prompting WHO to suggest that “all athletes should cover cuts and grazes with waterproof plasters, try to avoid swallowing water, wash/shower as soon as possible after exposure, and minimise time in the water”.

Thus, authorities have failed in their 2009 promise to “regenerate Rio’s magnificent waterways” through investment in sanitation ahead of hosting the Olympics. And the event’s promised legacy of cleaner air has been left blowing in the wind.

So what of the event itself? Seven years ago, Rio had promised that the city would use clean energy, preserve natural spaces and mitigate 100% of the carbon emissions caused by hosting the Olympics. In its first sustainability plan put forward in 2013, the 2016 Olympic Committee proclaimed that the event would “show leadership by setting new standards for sustainable management at events throughout the country and the region”.

Specifically, the Committee said it would be focussing on supply chain sustainability; improving ethical labour practices, reducing the use of potentially harmful substances, and stepping up efficiencies across energy, water and waste management processes.

Has the 2016 Olympics stayed true to any of those big green promises? With the event officially opening in Rio today (5 August), edie has rounded up the environmental impacts of various aspects “of the Games – from on-site solutions installed within the stadiums to the low-carbon credentials of the transportation and accommodation provided for athletes – to reveal just how sustainable this sporting mega-event is.

Greening the Games: Seven sustainability success stories of Rio 2016

1) Carbon mitigation

The overall carbon impact of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games is estimated to be around 3.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtco2eq) – the London 2012 Olympics achieved around 3.3mtco2eq. The emissions generated specifically during the two-week Games period in Rio is estimated at 724,000tco2eq, which is broken down Figure 1 below (the green footprints).

Figure 1: The estimated carbon footprint of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Infographic: Rio 2016

In October 2014, Rio proclaimed it would be “the largest carbon mitigation in Games history”. The organisers released a carbon footprint management report which broke down, in detail, the Olympics’ biggest sources of carbon emissions, and the ways in which the organisers sought to effectively reduce or offset these emissions. The overarching plan is to mitigate 100% of carbon emissions caused by the event, according to the report.

Around 43% of emissions associated with the Olympics actually arise during the pre-Games period; primarily due to venue construction and city infrastructure – which equates to around 1.6 million mtco2eq in Rio. According to the Olympics November 2015 sustainability report, 50% of this 1.6mtco2eq figure has already been offset by the Rio de Janeiro State Government, with the remaining 50% being offset through Atlantic Rainforest restoration projects and low-carbon economy programmes.

Beyond carbon offsetting, Rio 2016 is adopting a “measure, reduce, compensate” management strategy to try to actually minimising its overall carbon footprint at source, with hopes to reduce that overall 3.6mtco2eq figure by 18% for the operation of the games. Read on to find out how…

2) Off-site renewables and on-site energy efficiency

Approximately 29.5GW of energy will be required to power Rio 2016. With around 85% of Brazilian electricity comes from renewable sources (mainly hydropower), the organisers will be using “as much grid energy as possible” to power the games.

The Paulo Afonso Hydroelectric Power plant in the Brazilian State of Bahia. Photo: Maria Hsu

On energy efficiency, Rio 2016 will be using products that have a high level of energy efficiency or that enable reductions in energy consumption “whenever possible”; reducing the carbon in all materials used in manufacturing through sustainable procurement and design; and utilising renewable and alternative fuels (see low-carbon transport and logistics in the next section).

“Instead of relying on conventional carbon offsetting schemes, the power of the Games to inspire change opens up a range of alternatives for the adoption of new initiatives that effectively reduce emissions at source,” the Olympics carbon management report reads.

“This can be achieved by encouraging the uptake of innovation and better practices, shaping the market through supply-chain interventions, inspiring behavioural change initiatives and promoting knowledge transfer.”

3) Low-carbon transport and logistics

As detailed earlier in Figure 1, transport and logistics associated with the Games is estimated to produce around 40,000 tonnes of CO2 .To mitigate this, buses and trucks that will be utilised throughout the two-week event will be running on ‘B2O biodiesel’ which contains 20% recycled cooking oil. Organisers are hoping that, of the projected 23.5 million litres of fuel estimated to be consumed as a direct result of hosting the Games, at least four million gallons will be biodiesel and 2.8 million gallons will be ethanol.

To further drive vehicle efficiency, major transport routes that connect spectators with the key areas of the Games have been identified and optimised, and the buses set to run on the major routes will be prioritised to run on biodiesel.

And then there’s the transportation of athletes. Around 28,000 athletes and coaching staff from 205 countries have travelled to Rio by plane, which the organisers claim is the main contributor to operational transport emissions. There doesn’t appear to be a specific plan in place to reduce the overall environmental impact of this travel, but Rio 2016 has pledged to mitigate transport emissions by 50%, as set out in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Rio 2016’s carbon footprint mitigation compared with the 2014 World Cup. Chart: Rio 2016 

Once on the ground in Rio, around 1,500 buses will be used to transport the athletes and staff between venues during the Games. Careful planning of bus routes and driving efficiency training for bus drivers has been undertaken to reduce the carbon impact in this area.

4) Green buildings and venues

Rio 2016 wants to eliminate ‘white elephant’ constructions, after the development of a number of stadiums and structures for previous sporting events – such as the 2014 Brazil World Cup – that now sit unused. Figure 3 below provides a breakdown of construction areas for Rio 2016 structures, which shows that 71% of the areas built for the Games will be built on existing sites; 17% of structures will be overlayed, and 12% of structures will be newly-constructed.

Many of the new-build structures have been designed with sustainability front-of-mind; maximising the amount of available natural light, re-using rainwater and incorporating various energy-saving materials and technologies (see LED lighting in the next section).

The temporary Rio 2016 headquarters, for example, will have 80% of its material re-used in the development of future structures when the event has finished. The site also boasts a rainwater recycling system that utilises water collected via a garden irrigation system for re-use. Additional water-saving devices have been installed on all other temporary structures associated with the Olympics, according to the organisers.

Meanwhile, the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, which includes two swimming pools to host the Olympics swimming competitions and water polo finals, has been fitted with an innovative cooling solution which involved drilling 15,000 small holes throughout the venue to provide more natural air flow. This, along with other energy-saving technologies, provides the cooling equivalent of 10,000 air conditioners that would have had to have been used to cool the stadium.

And the Olympics golf course, situated in the Barra da Tijuca region of Rio, has been constructed on an area that is 70% degraded, in an effort to not construct the course on existing natural land. The construction of this golf course has, however, been questioned by environmental groups, as there already exists two functional golf courses in Rio (Itanhangá and Gavea), but apparently neither met the requirements of the Olympic Committee.

5) LED lighting

Despite a growing number of sports stadiums around the world turning to more efficient LED lighting as a “low-hanging fruit” of green technology upgrades, there are only a few 2016 Olympics venues that have incorporated LEDs.

Brazil’s temporary Olympic Committee building in Rio, which has been fitted with LED lights. Photo: GE Lighting

The headquarters of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organising Committee stands out among the few, as the first commercial building in Brazil to adopt LEDs. The temporary office building is fitted with around 3,000 LED troffers that offer a significantly longer life, lower energy output and reduced carbon footprint compared with the average florescent bulb. It is estimated these LED fixtures will save around save half a £380,000 in energy costs.

The only Olympic stadium that is reported to have installed LEDs is Arena Corinthians, which was built for the 2014 World Cup and will host group and quarter-final matches in the men’s and women’s Olympics tournaments, plus a men’s semi-final and the women’s bronze medal game. Around 840 LED lights with a total of 34,000 LEDs have been installed on the external façade of the Arena, making up the largest LED stadium screen in the world.

Outside of the stadiums, a system of more than 1,600 connected LED lights was recently installed in Flamengo Park, the largest public park in Rio, and the Lapa area in the centre of the city. These new lights, will allow officials to activate precise ‘on-off’ and dimming schedules to save on energy costs, the lighting installer GE says.

6) Sustainable food and drink schemes

With an estimated 6,000 14 million meals being served throughout the two-week event, Rio 2016 organisers have, in some instances, turned to small producers and markets that provide more healthy and sustainable food for visitors and athletes. They will be ensuring that 100% of fish served during the event is certified ‘sustainable’, while 0% of the meat served will come from deforestation-prone areas.

To minimise wastage, food and drink menus have been designed “creatively”, and portion sizes have been “optimised”. Organic waste composting is also being trialled in an effort to minimise the amount of waste that sent to landfill.

The Olympic Village food court, where athletes can choose from a variety of “creatively designed” meals. Photo: @XHSports/Twitter  

Under a project called “Reffetto-Rio”, the event also aims to turn surplus food from the Olympic Village into meals for people in need. Celebrity chefs Massimo Bottura and David Hertz plan to use the food waste from the Olympic kitchen to create meals for the needy in Rio’s Lapa neighbourhood – they estimate that there will be enough food waste to create 100 free dinners each night during the event.

Food and drink packaging represents another sustainability challenge for the organisers, making up as much as 80% of waste during Games time. Plates and cutlery will be made from compostable materials and the bottles will be made from recyclable PET bottles. More broadly, waste will be segregated in line with the Rio 2016 Waste Management Strategy – waste that is considered re-usable will be sent for re-use; recyclable waste will be sent to cooperatives; and compostable waste will be handled by composters.

7) Resource-efficient medals

Beyond the carbon offsetting, green building design and food waste reduction, Rio 2016  is even embedding its “green games” ethos in the design of the 5,130 gold, silver and bronze medals that will be given out during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The official medals for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which “celebrate nature and sustainability”. Photo: Rio 2016  

The extraction process of the gold medals will not involve the use of mercury. Multiple inspections have also been undertaken to ensure the miners extracting the gold have been doing so under good working conditions, according to the organisers.

Meanwhile, both the silver and bronze medals are made of 30% recycled materials, with the silver being recycled from such sources as X-ray plates and car parts and the bronze from discarded materials from the Brazilian Mint.

And it’s not just the medallions themselves that have received the sustainability treatment. Both the 2016 Olympics ribbons and the display cases the medals are housed in are symbols of sustainability. Half of the ribbon material was made from recycled plastic bottles that were obtained from local residents that earn a living by selling collected bottles; while the wooden presentation case that holds the medals is freijó wood sourced from a forest with certified sustainable production credentials.

Infographic: What about the energy generated by the athletes?

So, we now know how much energy is expected to be produced in Rio to host the Games, but what about the athletes? How much energy will the sprinters, swimmers and gymnasts be burning when competing throughout the two-week event? And, crucially, what if we could we were able to convert this power into electrical energy?

According to analysis by new energy firm GB Energy Supply, the athletes participating in 10 different sports will generate more than a million watts of energy throughout the Olympics, as detailed in the infographic below.


Luke Nicholls

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