We know you're sick of hearing about all the failures of the Sochi Olympics. From the jokes spurred by the Olympic ring incident at the opening ceremony, to the compilations of photos displaying unwelcoming hotel conditions, the U.S. media has done little but blast the Russians with criticism. Many of the Sochi mishaps are forgivable, but the Russian government's failure to uphold their promise for Zero Waste Olympic Games is one #SochiProblem that is truly deplorable.
The promise for a Zero Waste Olympics-- the cleanest Olympics the world has ever seen-- was a centerpiece in Russia's bid for holding the Winter 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Sochi presented the International Olympic Committee with an ambitious sustainability plan. They promised the construction of new facilities for waste-to-building materials and waste-to-energy conversion, and claimed a desire to showcase the economic practicality of sustainability.
Russia also specified that they would refrain from dumping construction waste and rely on only reusable materials. Perhaps this is why construction waste disposal is not accounted for in the $51 billion budget for the Olympics. But in October of last year, construction waste from Sochi was found being illegally dumped just outside Sochi, in a landfill located within a water protection zone.
Aside from breaking their Zero Waste Promise, Russia's illicit waste disposal activities raise larger questions of health, safety, and sustainability in Sochi. Dumping of industrial waste is banned at this site because the site is located in close enough proximity to potentially contaminate the Mzymta River, which provides about half of Sochi's water supply. In response to complaints from villagers and activists in the surrounding community, Russia's Environmental Protection Agency issued a $3,000 fine to the multibillion dollar company Russian Railways. The EPA did not require the waste be removed from the site.
Other environmental concerns have addressed the impact of the the Olympic games on Sochi's habitat and biodiversity. According to Salon magazine, the construction of the Olympic village affected over 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Environmental regulations were relaxed to accommodate the games, resulting in the degradation of sensitive ecosystems.
In response to criticism of Russia's dedication to sustainable practice at the Sochi Olympics, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reminds critics that Sochi will hold the first carbon neutral Games in Olympic history. Russia will be partnering with Dow Chemical, who will invest in low-carbon technologies to offset emissions, including travel, from the games. Putin also touts the government's agreement to invest in restoration of the endangered Persian leopard population. So the games may not end up being "zero waste" but they aren't "zero effort" either.
The International Olympic Committee has noted that the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are the first to take environmental concerns into consideration. They are not, however, the first to recognize the intersection between sports and sustainability. Here at University of Michigan, our student group M-SAS (Michigan Student Athletes for Sustainability) has brought together student athletes with concern for the environment since 2012. Click here to learn some helpful sustainability tips from our very own athletes and here to let our athletes tell you more about the U-M hybrid buses.
This post would not be complete without a shout out to the University of Michigan athletes participating in this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi. For more information on U-M's representation in Sochi, visit: http://bit.ly/NcNPO0.
GO USA! GO BLUE! GO RECYCLE!