What’s powering the ‘most sustainable’ Games?

Sensemaking / What’s powering the ‘most sustainable’ Games?

London 2012 set out to be a shining example of good green practice on resources and power use. But has it fulfilled that promise, asks Robin Yapp.

23 Jul 2012

London 2012 set out to be a shining example of good green practice on resources and power use. But has it fulfilled that promise, asks Robin Yapp.

Staging a sporting event on the scale of the Olympics was always going to be a high-energy undertaking, in more ways than one. All those buildings, all those people, all that power… Squaring this with the lofty aspirations to stage the world's most sustainable major sporting event was, to put it mildly, a big ask.

And when early plans to supply electricity from an onsite wind turbine were shelved, the critics were swift to pounce, accusing the organisers of breaking a promise to source one-fifth of the site's energy from on-site renewable sources, settling instead for a measly 11%. Not an impressive start, surely?

For London 2012, however, this change of direction was part of a pragmatic approach, which has seen plans evolve in response to circumstances as the site took shape.

Instead, they provided funding for two community programmes which will see nearly 3,000 local homes and 12 schools retrofitted with the latest in energy efficient lighting and heating controls, insulation, water efficiency measures and smart meters. Over time, this will not only result in greater carbon savings; it will also have a lasting impact on the quality of life of local people. As such, it sums up nicely two central planks of London 2012's take on sustainability. The first is to secure wins for the local community, and the second is designing for the long term – rather than for high-profile, but possibly short-lived, success.

Another example of this approach is the specially designed Kings Yard Energy Centre on the edge of the Olympic Park, which uses the latest technology to provide a 30% reduction in the carbon footprint of the Park's heating, cooling and electricity needs. Although principally gas-fired, it also includes a biomass boiler, which alone saves over 1,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, and the whole plant is designed to be easily converted to use fuel from biogasification, as and when that becomes fully viable. A combination of solar PV panels and mini wind turbines – strikingly sited along the main concourse through the Olympic Park – completes the renewable generation picture.

But the main gains are in efficiency, where a combination of insulation and intelligent design has ensured that all the main buildings exceed minimum regulation standards by at least 15%. This is no small achievement given the very particular needs of each building. The sleek, much-admired Velodrome is the cream of the crop, at 31% more energy efficient than regulations require, rising to 59% when the Energy Centre is taken into consideration.

Estimating the emissions of an event yet to take place is no easy task. And so the organisers asked Best Foot Forward – a Queen's Award-winning consultancy – to develop a new methodology, drawing on a wide range of expert input from LOCOG's Carbon Technical Advisory Group. The result was a forward-looking (predictive) reference footprint for the Games, which allowed organisers to identify potential major impact areas in advance, and look for ways to avoid them.

The most notable finding was that the largest component of the Games' footprint came from the embodied carbon in construction materials. LOCOG used this information to refine its venue designs, procurement strategies and materials specifications, saving close to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, and shaving almost 20% of its projected carbon footprint.

The high standards set rubbed off on the sponsors, too. The Games prompted Coca-Cola to rethink its storage space for easy stockpiling and swift deliveries – both to the venues and to other outlets it will continue to serve. In 2010, it signed a five-year lease for a 22,000 square metre warehouse in Dagenham. Nine miles from the Olympic Park, this features solar PV roof panels, an 80kWh ground source heat pump and a rainwater harvesting system collecting around 400,000 litres of water annually, which halves annual water use. Coca-Cola says the warehouse has helped to cut its carbon footprint for Games-related distribution by a third, as well as its utility bills. And it hopes its success will encourage similar investments by other companies.

Energy consumption isn't the only source of carbon emissions, of course. Building and equipping the Olympic site could result in frightening levels of resource consumption, unless carefully managed. In an effort to do so, the Olympic Delivery Authority set out a Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS), back in January 2007, reflecting then current best practice in construction. It committed to using at least 20% recycled content by value in Games venues, and at least 25% recycled content by volume of aggregate used. As of December 2011, its performance had far exceeded these targets, standing at 34% and 42% respectively. This partly reflected advances in construction practice over those four years, but also the fact that striving to meet those targets had itself encouraged new approaches.

The same goes for the aim of minimising waste from all the work on the site. A total of 98.5% of the waste resulting from demolishing existing structures was either recovered, reused or recycled, with the figure for the construction phase rising to 99%. Both comfortably exceeded the 90% target. Processed concrete, reclaimed cobbles, bricks and sandstone paving all found new purposes through reuse or recycling. Broken roof tiles, for example, were put to use in creating habitats for invertebrates in the Park's wildlife havens.

Key companies such as UPS, the logistics partner, and BT, which is delivering the communications network, deployed tag and track systems to reunite items with their original packaging. UPS said it expects to meet the 'zero waste to landfill' target. Niall Dunne, Chief Sustainability Officer at BT, expects that around 25 tonnes of cable drums, wooden pallets, cardboard and shrink wrap may be left over after the Games, but he confirms that a contract is in place for all of this to be recycled.

Efforts were also made to minimise the impact of fitting out the buildings once complete.

UPS is charged with achieving carbon-cutting efficiencies in delivering, and later removing, 30 million pieces of inventory, including one million pieces of sporting equipment, 250,000 pieces of luggage and 400 tonnes of broadcasting equipment.

One of its biggest challenges is the Athlete's Village, effectively a temporary town of more than 16,000 athletes and team officials during the Olympics. Half a million items had to be delivered to the 2,818 apartments. Furniture and fittings arrived from the Far East to Tilbury Docks in 450 containers before being unloaded and taken to UPS's nearby warehouse. Flat-pack furniture was assembled and loaded into demountable containers, halving the number of road journeys to the Village needed compared to the standard method of transportation in sea containers.

UPS also worked with the Carbon Neutral Company to measure, manage and mitigate its Games footprint. Unavoidable carbon emissions were balanced by purchasing gold-standard offsets from a Chinese scheme converting landfill gas to electricity. This not only generates power; it also captures methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas which could otherwise leak into the atmosphere.

The same approach towards unavoidable carbon emissions was taken by Coca-Cola, which also bought gold standard carbon offsets. These will go towards a series of projects in Brazil (host country for the Rio 2016 Games) in which biomass is used to replace fossil fuels in ceramics factories.

BT's carbon impact is less visible, but far from negligible. The company is charged with delivering every image, every sports report, every one of an estimated one billion visits to the official London 2012 website, along with millions of phone calls, emails and texts sent and received during the Games. Influenced by LOCOG's work, it has developed its own carbon footprinting methodology, calculating both emissions produced 'in use' and those 'embodied' in all the kit. It hopes this could raise standards across the industry.

Packaging will be colour-coded to encourage recycling

So much for creating the Olympics site. Once in use, of course, it will generate a great deal of waste, not least from the tens of thousands of athletes, visitors and staff who descend on the Park. LOCOG has stipulated that at least 70% of this should be reused, recycled or composted, with nothing going directly to landfill. The organisers worked with Coca-Cola and resource specialists WRAP to develop a system to encourage recycling. Spectators will find 120-litre black waste bins sandwiched by a green 240-litre recycling bin and an orange 240-litre bin for compostable waste. Food and drink packaging will be colour-coded with green or orange flashes to reinforce the message.

For its part, Coca-Cola has also pledged to recycle every plastic bottle disposed of at the Olympic Park and return it to the shelves within six weeks. Continuum Recycling, a joint partnership between ECO Plastics and Coca-Cola Enterprises, made this 'bottle-to-bottle' promise feasible, by expanding an existing reprocessing factory in Lincolnshire, which reopened in May 2012. Continuum Recycling also enabled Coca-Cola to guarantee that its bottles sold at venues, and across the UK by the end of 2012, will contain at least 25% recycled plastic (rPET).

"It's a game changer", said Katherine Symonds, Head of Sustainability for Coca-Cola's Olympic team. "Two-thirds of all UK plastic waste was being shipped to Asia. Following the opening of Continuum Recycling, only one-third will be." LOCOG also required all catering firms in the Olympic Park to use compostable and recycled food packaging, so cutting out the 'unrecyclable' food pack waste which is so often a blight of any major event.

Taken together, all these initiatives underline the fact that it is possible to stage a huge spectacular such as the Olympics without leaving a mountain of unrecoverable rubbish at the end of it.

All those spectators won't arrive at the Park by magic, however. The organisers are encouraging people to travel by public transport or bicycle, with cars largely 'designed out' of the plans. Inevitably, though, many will make the first part of the journey by vehicle – and those coming from overseas will fly. And every journey that's not on foot or cycle emits some carbon.

For some years now, BP has been encouraging drivers to reduce and offset their carbon via its Target Neutral programme, which invests in schemes to avoid or absorb CO2 emissions elsewhere in the world. For London2012, BP is offsetting all journeys to the Games for free to anyone who registers at www.bptargetneutral.com/london2012.

The low carbon development projects have been selected to reflect the global nature of the Olympics, with schemes on each of the continents participating in the Games. They include community reforestation on the slopes of Mount Meru and Mount Kenya in Africa, building cyclone-resistant wind farms for local power in New Caledonia in the Pacific, producing electricity from landfill gas in Turkey and biogas on Wisconsin dairy farms, using biomass to fuel the kilns in Brazilian ceramic factories, and turning rice and cotton waste into renewable electricity in rural China. Each project not only cuts carbon, but also creates jobs and economic opportunities for local people.

The schemes are all validated by ICROA – the International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Alliance – and scrutinised by a panel including Care International and Forum for the Future. BP hopes that it will raise awareness about the carbon impact of travel and set a world record for the most people to offset travel emissions to a single event. But it's not without its critics. "Offsetting is something you do after all your other work to reduce emissions", according to Simon Lewis, WWF's Olympics spokesperson. "This is a low-cost and fairly cynical bit of greenwashing."

David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability at LOCOG, however, is adamant that the London 2012 offsetting scheme comes "at the end of a long list of measures to avoid and minimise emissions in the first place".

Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, comments: "Offsetting should only ever be part of the picture. But where unavoidable carbon emissions are concerned – and you cannot hope to travel any distance to the Olympics without incurring them – then it is an excellent way of ensuring that those emissions are reduced or avoided elsewhere. And much, much better than doing nothing!"

After the Games is over comes the process of transforming the site into a permanent park and sports location. Attention has been given to minimising waste and energy output. The 'pop-up' venues for water polo and other sports are designed for easy disassembly and reuse, and substantial swathes of seating and other furniture have been hired, rather than bought, so ensuring further use.

Equipment installed by BT for the Games will provide another legacy, becoming part of the national infrastructure. This includes more than 19,000 copper pairs and 3,000 fibres (a single pair will support the needs of most businesses), which will be available to any communication services provider.

Waste will be further reduced, with furniture sold off, donated to schools or used again at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. To give two examples: forty fibre-glass concrete moulds from the Aquatic Centre are going to a nearby adventure playground, and surplus stationery is being sent to a children's special needs centre in West Ham. Attention to detail in all aspects of the event has been key – even the volunteer Games Makers' umbrellas are made of 100% recycled polyester.

However, the legacy review published by the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL) identifies one black mark in this area, stating that the commitment for the Games to be a catalyst for new waste infrastructure in East London will not be achieved. It's also critical of the London Legacy Development Corporation's target for 60% of residential waste at post-Games apartments to be recycled or home composted by 2020. Set against the more ambitious targets being drawn up for new housing elsewhere, this is seen as conservative.

An operation on this scale was never going to be footprint-free

Overall, though, most people acknowledge that an operation on this scale was never going to be footprint-free. In times to come, its environmental targets may well look unambitious. But if they do so, it might in part be because they have helped speed the adoption of better, more innovative practice.

A "One Planet Olympics" was always going to be a tall order in a country living a three-planet lifestyle. But, as the target was to move towards that ambition, then London 2012 may well pull it off. – Robin Yapp

Photos: LOCOG; BP; Continuum Recycling / The Coca-Cola Company

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