CMP Series

Olympian Effort

History was made in London this summer - and not just by star athletes like Gabby Douglas and Michael Phelps.  The 2012 Olympic Games were the most sustainable Summer Olympics ever, setting a new bar for sustainable event management and inspiring a new international standard.

london's olympic park and village

The effort to manage waste responsibly started with London’s bid for the Olympics nearly a decade ago.  “Our vision [was] to use the power of the Games to inspire lasting change,” said David Stubbs, head of sustainability efforts for the 2012 Olympic Games, who has held that position since 2003.  “For six weeks in the summer of 2012, the eyes of the world [were] on London.  But for seven years before, and for many years afterwards, we will have changed and will be changing the way we impact on people, industry, and the planet.”

Advance Planning

London was the first Olympic host city to incorporate sustainability in its plans from the very beginning.  For instance, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games’ (LOCOG) original plan was to locate the Games in East London, in a mostly blighted area of abandoned industrial sites, in order to rebuild a community that would sustain the test of time.  “From the outset,” Stubbs said, “we wanted to use the Games to regenerate East London and bring it to a better level.”

And because LOCOG didn’t want to build facilities that would have no legacy use, many temporary structures were used during the Olympics.  Those permanent structures that were built had an established purpose post-Games.  For instance, at Olympic Village and Paralympic Village, more than 2,000 residential units were constructed to house athletes.  After the completion of the Games, the Village will be transformed into a mixed-tenure residential neighborhood, incorporating a range of affordable housing options.

In addition to demolishing and constructing responsibly, the organizing committee created a detailed vision for food, waste, and sustainable sourcing that would govern the decisions of all vendors and stakeholders throughout the process of organizing and conducting the event.  Here’s how LOCOG’s sustainability plans can translate to meetings and events of all kinds.

Zero Waste

As at any large event, foodservice presented a huge challenge to LOCOG’s sustainability vision.  Stubbs and his team worked with stakeholders to develop a food vision that included an emphasis on sustainably sourced products, or those that are sourced with environmental, social, and ethical issues in mind.  That meant the foods that were served were largely organic, fair trade, or locally sourced.  On location, signage informed consumers which products were organic or fair trade.

As well as ensuring that sustainable foods were served, London was the first host city to publish an all-embracing zero-waste vision – a goal of sending zero waste to landfills.  A complex strategy covered food-packaging regulations, a system of waste and recycling containers, communication and signage, and the identification of reprocessing options and markets.  According to Stubbs, the committee viewed all waste as a potential resource, which governed its policies of finding ways to reuse, recycle, and compost every item possible.

LOCOG also instituted stringent sustainability regulations for foodservice providers, and all catering operations and foodservice companies agreed to them, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.  One of the regulations required all foodservice businesses to use the same packaging vendor, so there were only a few basic types of food-waste materials on site.  Each type of material was color-coded with matching waste bins to help consumers return their waste to the correct bins.  For instance, PET plastic bottles were marked with orange lines and were disposed of in orange bins, which were transported to a PET reprocessing facility in northern England.  “Coca-Cola bottles used and disposed of early in the Olympics were transformed into new bottles by the time of the Paralympic Games, six weeks later,” Stubbs said.  “All the PET plastic went to the same place and was made into new products; it’s a closed-end process.”

That type of “closed-loop” solution was what the organizing committee had in mind with its zero-waste goal.  LOCOG established “a dedicated line” for waste, Stubbs said, by sending all waste to one nearby processing facility, where every recyclable item was extracted and other waste was reused or composted.

In addition to seeking such solutions, organizers worked with partners to develop tools, and undertook public education and outreach initiatives to encourage London residents and visitors from around the world to live more sustainable lifestyles.

While organizers aimed to send zero waste to landfills from “closed” venues, or those venues operated by the London Olympics, there were also many situations in which Games-related waste was generated at “open” sites across the U.K.  For instance, the committee could not control the types of materials entering the waste stream at sites such as the road-race routes, torch relays, official hotels, cultural events, transport hubs, and approach routes to venues.  In those cases, LOCOG worked with suppliers, partners, and local authorities to encourage the alignment of waste-management practices at open sites with those adopted for closed venues.

Also on site, Olympic organizers paid attention to what would become of signage, souvenirs, temporary structures, and other items that may be left behind.  “Having such a big focus on sustainability means we need to be sure about what will happen after the Olympics,” Stubbs said.  “We are making sure we maximize opportunities, such as selling items as memorabilia or donating items to causes that can use them.  We don’t want to end up with a lot of rubbish.”

Beyond the Games

Not only did the London Games make history as the greenest Summer Olympics yet, but the event also helped to leave a legacy for sustainable event planning around the world.  LOCOG’s aggressive focus on sustainability inspired the development of ISO 20121, a new international standard for sustainable event management.  International standards, developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO) through global consensus, give state-of-the-art specifications for products, services, and good practice, helping to make industry more efficient and effective, and helping to break down barriers to international trade.

Every new standard starts out in one country, said Fiona Pelham, owner of U.K.-based Sustainable Events Ltd.  and co-chair of the ISO 20121 committee.  During the beginning phases of planning for London 2012, Stubbs suggested to a representative from the British Standards Institute that a standard for sustainable event management should be created.  That standard, BS 8901, was published in 2007 and helped govern LOCOG’s approach to a sustainable Games.  “Almost immediately, people around the world began implementing BS 8901,” Pelham says.  “And when a national standard is being adopted internationally, that’s when it’s time to develop an international standard.”

ISO 20121 was published in June, just in time for its namesake, the 2012 Olympics.  Now that the Games are over, the newest international standard is finding new life across the globe in the hands of sustainability-minded event organizers.  “The standard is not a checklist,” Pelham said.  “It’s more about giving people a framework so they look closely at what their potential issues are at any given event and develop objectives and measurements to tackle those issues in a sustainable manner.”

When organizations implement ISO 20121, there are “clear economic benefits,” Pelham said.  “It’s a brilliant framework for good business practices.  You constantly understand what messages you’re sending and what vision you’re creating for your company.”

Anybody can implement the standard; it’s not necessary to become ISO 20121-certified.  “Certification is just a badge that can give you some press and marketing opportunities,” Pelham says.  “The real benefit simply comes from implementation.”

London’s Top 10

Below are the “top 10 tips for events,” from the sustainability guidelines provided to organizers of corporate and public events by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

  • Access Ensure communication methods and physical access facilities mean everyone is welcome.
  • Local Area Look after your local community.  Try to reduce congestion, litter, and noise.
  • Energy and water Think of inventive ways to reduce your energy and water usage.
  • Transport Walking, cycling, and public transport are healthy and more environmentally friendly ways to travel to an event.
  • Reduce and reuse  Think about what you really need – buy only what is needed and hire/reuse everything else.
  • Responsible sourcing Try to support local businesses and socially responsible organizations.
  • Food and beverage  Try to showcase local, seasonal, and fair-trade produce, and provide free drinking water.
  • Keepsakes  Ensure giveaways add to the customer experience, are useful, reusable, and/or recyclable.
  • Make it easy to recycle Try to provide recyclable packaging and provide recycling and general waste bins.
  • Health, safety, and security A safe environment is a happy environment.  Assessing the risks in advance can help ensure everyone can enjoy the event.
More Resources

Test Time

Here’s how to earn your CEU hour.  Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:

To earn one hour of CEU credit, visit to answer questions about the information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

To earn additional credit, you can take more more tests in our series here:

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.