London Olympics aims for a gold medal in waste recovery

London Olympics aims for a gold medal in waste recovery

One of the London Olympics' sustainability goals is to send zero waste to landfill, and though that may seen like a daunting task -- 2.1 million spectators attended in the first three days -- it's little different than a company going zero waste.

"The bulk of the Games' operation waste tends to be food and food packaging, and the vast bulk of it comes from spectators," said David Stubbs, head of sustainability efforts at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Although types of waste differ from company to company or event to event, some key factors remain the same: control and communication.

For the Olympics, that came down to controlling what materials are brought in and what packaging and items are used on the grounds.

As for what packaging spectators bring in, that intersects with security, which only allows liquids in containers up to 100 ml (about 3 ounce), essentially keeping out any normal-sized plastic, aluminum or glass packaging. Relatedly, the zero waste goal is for "closed venues," leaving out areas like cycling courses where anyone is free to come and observe.

To control what waste gets produced within the grounds of the Games, the London 2012 Organizing Committee worked with all caterers on site to make sure they used the same supplier for compostable materials.

That means all plates, cups, cutlery and packaging can be composted, and since they all come from the same place, they all meet the same standards.

Drinks, meanwhile, are only sold in PET plastic and will end up recycled back into food-grade PET.

"By having control over the materials that the caterers are using, we've boiled it down to just a few materials that are going into the waste stream," Stubbs said.

On the communication side, all compostable materials have orange marks on them, matching the orange bins and bags for compostables to go in. Recyclables are collected in green bins and bags 

Stubbs added that volunteers will also be around to help people sort waste properly. Still, waste can always end up in the wrong place, and there will be some back-of-the-house sorting going on as well as sorting in much finer detail at the materials recovery facility in East London that all Olympics waste will get sent to. 

In addition to spectator-related waste, there will be cardboard, tin, glass and other packaging materials generated from behind-the-scenes operations.

While meeting the zero waste target will be a big achievement, Stubbs is hoping the work that went into the sorting and recycling system goes beyond the Games.

WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), a not-for-profit that works with businesses and communities in the U.K. to reduce waste and increase recycling, helped create the color coding system for the Olympics and is now looking at how to take that coding to public spaces, he said.

"This is the most detailed and thorough waste vision there has even been for an Olympic Games," Stubbs said. "There will be a lot of learning from this."