London Strives For Zero Waste Summer Olympics 2012

Compostable packaging and existing process infrastructure help UK make good on its promise to leave a sustainable legacy.

Dan Sullivan
BioCycle September 2012, Vol. 53, No. 9, p. 32

The three identified waste streams were kept separate throughout the system using color-coding that matched both the front-of-the-house receptacles (above) to the back-of-the-house collection containers (right). Orange was for compostables, green for recyclables and black for nonrecyclables.

The three identified waste streams were kept separate throughout the system using color-coding that matched both the front-of-the-house receptacles (above) to the back-of-the-house collection containers (right). Orange was for compostables, green for recyclables and black for nonrecyclables.

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.”

The color-coding was also utilized on the packaging and service ware — as shown above in the top symbol on the McDonald’s cups and container — to match with the proper receptacle, in this case, orange for composting.

The color-coding was also utilized on the packaging and service ware — as shown above in the top symbol on the McDonald’s cups and container — to match with the proper receptacle, in this case, orange for composting.

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.”

Education And Implementation

WRAP developed all the communications material, the iconography, the color-coding and labeling, for the Games. “They developed all of the guidance getting people to think of waste differently,” says LOCOG’s Stubbs. This included recycling instructions sent out with event tickets, signage throughout the venues, crafting the announcements broadcast during and between events, and the methodology and infrastructure for getting spectators and workers to keep the three identified waste streams separate from the front of the house to the back of the house. The latter was achieved by color-coding packaging and serviceware to match corresponding receptacles. “The orange organics/compostable bins matched the orange ‘compostable’ logo on packaging, the green logo matched the green recycling bins and the smaller black bins were for nonrecyclables,” explains Hill. “And it was that sort of a process all the way through from packaging for the consumer at the front of the house to the back-of-the-house collection bins [and bags] and maintaining three separate waste streams clear to processing.”

Color-coded and bagged material was first taken to a SITA transfer station in Barking (East London), about 20 minutes from the Olympic Park. From there, SITA subcontractor Countrystyle handled all organics from the Olympic Park at its in-vessel (for food waste) composting facility at Ridham in Kent. Commingled recyclables and the majority of nonrecyclable waste were taken to SITA’s materials recovery facility (MRF), also in Barking. (Countrystyle had also helped assemble the catalog of compostable products by testing some of the new items for compostability in its system before they were included.) For venues outside London, regional composters and other waste management companies were coordinated by SITA to assist.

“SITA does have its own composting facilities, but we’re not going to drive 100 miles unnecessarily,” says Marek Gordon, SITA UK Director in charge of implementing the waste management contract at the Olympics and Paralympics. “Here in the UK, it is quite common for waste management companies to use each other’s facilities.” While SITA was responsible for waste management of all Olympics-related activity across the UK, he says, “If there was an incumbent contractor, we were highly encouraged to use them.”

BioCycle spoke with Gordon on the third day of the Paralympics. He reported, with pride, that SITA hadn’t “landfilled a single kilo of material,” but added there have been challenges. “Clearly, when you’ve been through any large organized effort like this there is always going to be room for improvement.” Contamination has been one such challenge. “For contaminated compostables, there have been a couple of stages to deal with that,” he adds. “One was when the materials were delivered to the transfer station — looking for the wrong color bags, which is obvious contamination, and pulling that out. Countrystyle, which is quite strict about a 2 percent limit on contaminants and produces BSI PAS 100 quality compost, also pulled some out. Plastic bottles turned up everywhere. Even so, I would say front of the house with the public went remarkably well. The color coding definitely helped with the whole process.”

LOCOG’s Stubbs adds that “to a large extent, we have been able to control all materials coming onto the site, including food and food packaging. Specifying that a single source of supply for all caterers to use was critical to meeting our original target of a high proportion of recycling and zero waste to landfill.” But while a large percentage of the games took place at Olympic Park in East London, some related venues spanned the country from Weymouth to Newcastle (about 365 miles). Achieving consistency in practice and protocol with so many spectators and vendors across such a vast landscape has been a challenge, he added. “We’ve got multiple contractors and caterers, some temporary, some permanent, some veterans and others who are brand new. A consistent approach is difficult under such circumstances. One stadium and one event are challenging enough. Now imagine that one hundredfold all at the same time. It’s quite mind blowing.”

Legacy Of Benefits

According to key players, the streamlined approach pioneered at the 2012 Summer Games could set a precedent for simplifying packaging and recycling systems as well as how they interface, particularly at one-time events and in public places and venues. Baseline statistics put recycling in public places across the UK at about 15 percent. “I think what this process has shown is that it definitely can be done,” says WRAP’s Tozer, adding that he sees events and catering as the two biggest opportunities for growth based on lessons learned. “We have shown that we can get the materials and products out there to supply the caterers, and we can manage the different waste streams.” While packaging logos have been in place in the UK for a number of years to determine recycling paths for items such as plastic, bottles and cans, the 2012 Olympic Games was the first time logos and color coding of packaging and bins have been used to manage the entire waste stream. “This could ensure real growth in good quality recyclables,” adds Tozer, “especially front of the house and in public areas, as it takes hold and fosters behavior change, and as the public becomes aware of the different routes for their rubbish. That is very encouraging.”

A focus on sustainability at the Olympics dates back to the United Nations 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that the conversation about how sports teams and venues could play a positive role in the quest for a more sustainable planet — both through leading by example and by educating spectators — began in earnest. In 1996, the Olympic Charter was officially amended to recognize the environment of the third pillar of “Olympism,” along with sports and culture. Each venue has raised the bar ever since, giving the subsequent host a leg up through the eyes of experience.

Rio will be home to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, and Stubbs will no doubt be on hand to assist Brazil long before the 2016 opening ceremonies. “If you look end to end from your suppliers to your processors and produce and procure the right materials in the first place, then that waste stream becomes a value chain,” says Stubbs. “It’s not only cost-effective, it’s the right thing to do. But it requires proper thought throughout the system and vigilance to make sure it’s maintained. You have to work at it, but in the end it’s worth the effort.”

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