Science, Tech & Environment

London Olympics good example of sports' embrace of environmental stewardship

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Workers put out recycling bins in London's Olympic Park ahead of the Olympic Games at Stratford in London on July 17, 2012. (Photo by Luke MacGregor/Reuters.)

The London Olympic Games are selling themselves not only as a way to revitalize a run-down part of the city, but also as the greenest Olympics, with plenty of venues designed to be recycled.

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Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its sports greening project, argues sports can have a huge influence on environmental attitudes — regardless of whether it’s an Olympic year. Hershkowitz says sports have had a history of pointing society in the direction of change.

"Our government, is not leading the way on global climate disruption, on biodiversity loss," he said. "Based on past cultural shifts, it’s clear that Congress does not always lead the way — gender equality — it was not Congress that led the way on gender equality."

Sports are extremely influential in U.S. society — 13 percent of Americans say they pay attention to science, while 61 percent say they pay attention to sports.

"The sports industry is non-political," Hershkowitz said. "So, if there was ever an industry that could confirm for us the non-partisan mainstream nature of environmental stewardship, the need for better environmental stewardship, the sports industry is a great spokesperson for that cause."

Hershkowitz says the major pro sports leagues in the United States, from NASCAR to Major League Baseball, are already taking some steps to be more environmentally friendly. They're all, he said, using forms of renewable energy.

Recycling is an especially important activity at sports venues, where a great deal of materials are consumed.

"They’re all looking for ways to enhance waste management and also fan engagement," he said. "The National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association earlier this year ran two public service announcements in one week that was seen by 45 million people, encouraging people to recycle and think about renewable energy."

Hershkowitz praised sporting events that use their biggest stars to make a point about the environment.

"The fact that these businesses, global businesses, with iconic participants, are encouraging people to think about environmentalism can only help us," he said. "Outside the family, the most iconic role models are often athletes and entertainers."

That sports franchises are embracing environmentalism in any way is a watershed moment for the movement, Hershkowitz said.

"Coca Cola is one of the official sponsors of the Olympics and has been for 80 years. Clearly, they think that messaging affiliation with professional sports is good for branding," he said. "If it’s good for branding for Coca Cola, why is it not good for branding for environmental stewardship."

These particular Olympics Games have made a great deal of effort to embrace environmental stewardship from the beginning.

They’re trying to reduce their carbon emissions by 50 percent and ensure 20 percent of the energy comes from on-site renewable energy sources. They’re looking to reduce waste by 90 percent and provide 100 percent of spectators with opportunities to arrive by mass transit, bicycling or walking. Even the housing is designed with sustainability and energy efficiency in mind, Hershkowitz said.

"This Olympics, really, I think, has one of the most ambitious environmental agendas of any sporting event in history," he said. "Are they achieving it all? Definitely not, but they’re saying that as well."