Japan’s 2020 Olympics: Not so green after all? (Nely & Bella)

Link to article: https://www.npr.org/2021/07/06/1013496227/theres-work-to-do-if-the-olympics-actually-wants-to-be-environmentally-friendly

From cardboard beds, to podiums made of recycled plastic, to medals made of extracted metals from old electronics; the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was advertised as the most eco-friendly one ever. The organisers found ways to create many items from recycled materials; an example of their pledge to use sustainable materials in the Athletes’ Village. Although some environmentalists applaud the efforts, others have called it an exaggerated “greenwash”. Data has unfortunately shown that sustainability in all dimensions has been decreasing over the past few decades. Some environmental groups still give the Olympic organisers credit for trying. At the games, any extra electricity required will be 100% renewable energy. But flying in thousands of athletes from around the world would leave a heavy carbon footprint in the form of harmful gas emissions. However, organisers have collected enough carbon credits from companies to make this the “first ever carbon-negative Olympics”. Links can be seen to Kirby’s (2011) sustainable Japan, where Japan strives to be a more eco-friendly and sustainable country.

By organising the first ever carbon-negative Olympics, a great milestone in the history of the games, Japan attempted to showcase its global green leadership. This has been a breakthrough and fostered a new paradigm for promoting sustainability and environmentalism in international sporting events. The use of recycled materials and renewable energy also embodied how Japanese perceive resource-conservation as a social virtue (Kirby, 2011). For instance, the medals are made of recycled metal from electronics collected from Japanese citizens. Involving the public in the production of the Olympic medals has shown a greater sustainability effort for the Tokyo Games.

Despite their best efforts at eco-friendliness, however, it was found that the tropical plywood used in construction of stadiums came from Indonesia where deforestation was an issue. These rainforests were being converted into palm oil plantations which further endangered animals like the orangutans. The Olympic officials, however, rejected these complaints. This issue is a mirror to the reading from Knight (2006), where the monkeys being pushed out of their forest homes end up invading villages in a bid to survive. Similar issues could occur in the future with these orangutans as they lose their homes in Indonesia, and possibly invade rural villages for food. Japan reaped the “benefits” of using the plywood from the rainforest and was complimented for being “green” at the expense of the orangutans, who suffered the “cost” of us destroying their natural habitats. This shows the uneven distribution of the cost and benefits with environmental change (Robbins, 2007).

Additionally, overfishing proved to be an issue when serving athletes seafood at the Olympic Village. The Organizers had initially set a standard for sustainability; with strict rules of sourcing seafood. But eventually, the issue of how to cater to the athletes’ great demand for fresh marine products without resulting in overfishing became a conundrum for the Japanese suppliers. The sustainability plan written ended up being ignored after the suppliers’ successful lobbying with the organizers.

To fulfill the ambition of hosting an environmentally-friendly Olympics, the authorities attempted to control resources through propagandizing “sustainability”. However, as Wolfe argued in the article, “sustainability increasingly tends to take a back seat to corporate profits and ambitions to put on bigger, more impressive spectacles.” How the sustainability of the Olympics is framed and marketed revealed the contours of Japanese-style sustainability and manifested their attitudes toward ecology. Podiums, medals, and cardboard beds as the symbol of sustainability, only exaggerated the unfavourable reality. The economic benefits have inevitably been a driving factor behind the authorities’ decision-making, which hampered the sustainability effort of the Olympic Games.


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Kirby, P. W. (2011). Troubled natures: waste, environment, Japan. University of Hawaii Press.

Knight, J. (2006). Waiting for wolves in Japan: an anthropological study of people-wildlife relations. University of Hawaii Press.

Robbins, P. (2019). Political ecology: A critical introduction. John Wiley & Sons.

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