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Vancouver goes for the green and more

From the moment Vancouver won the right to host the Winter Olympics, the city has focused on "sustainability," extending from eco-friendly buildings to an alliance with aboriginal people.
About 50 percent of the residential buildings in the Southeast False Creek project, which will house athletes during the Games, have roofs covered in grass, which absorb rainwater, provide insulation and attract wildlife.
About 50 percent of the residential buildings in the Southeast False Creek project, which will house athletes during the Games, have roofs covered in grass, which absorb rainwater, provide insulation and attract wildlife.Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Most of us will never experience the thrill of Olympic victory. Our decrepit old computers and TVs, on the other hand, might make it to the podium as glittering gold medals — thanks to an innovation from this year's winter Olympics.

The 2010 games will boast the first medals in Olympic history to contain metal recovered from end-of-life electronics that would otherwise go to the landfill.

The innovative “Metals to Medals” project — a partnership between Canadian mining company Teck and the Vancouver Organizing Committee — is one of many initiatives that organizers are touting as part of a broad effort to make these games the most "sustainable" ever.

The multitude of green projects detailed here seems fitting for a city that hopes to become the world’s greenest by 2020. Some of the highlights, according to the Vanouver Organizing Committee, or VANOC:

  • The Olympic and Paralympic Village in the city of Vancouver is scheduled to become a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood after the games and has already won numerous sustainability awards.
  • Unused fuel from the more than 12,000 Olympic torches will be recycled and their cylinders re-used; the torches are also constructed of recyclable materials such as steel and aluminum.
  • A Lost and Found program will do double duty: distributing items left behind at the games to low-income, inner-city residents, while keeping the items out of landfills.
  •   VANOC will offset all carbon emissions related directly to the games, while spectators have been asked to voluntarily offset their own.

A commitment to ‘advanced social inclusion’
One unusual feature of these games is that the sustainability effort extends beyond the environmental impacty of the event to include "the social and economic dimensions of sustainability,” according to VANOC's Web site.

This expansion is a point of pride for VANOC. “We’re the first Olympics to make a commitment to advanced social inclusion,” says Ann Duffy, corporate sustainability officer for the committee.

One social inclusion effort involves the victory bouquets that will be presented to athletes. These flowers — besides being organically grown on sustainable farms — are being prepared by women in the Just Beginnings Non-Profit Society, a florist shop and floral design school for women who face barriers to employment.

VANOC has also formed historic partnerships with First Nation groups. The committee’s collaboration with Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (known collectively as the Four Host First Nations), marks the first time an Olympic organizing committee has partnered with indigenous peoples.

Expanding definition of sustainability
Denis Du Bois of Seattle, who has been covering sustainability at the Olympic games for Energy Priorities Magazine, raises an eyebrow at this expanded definition of sustainability.

“Social inclusion is an important part of corporate social responsibility, but not necessarily a sustainable practice,” says Du Bois. “Reducing waste that you send to the landfill — that is a sustainable practice. Reducing the energy you use or the number of idling diesel buses you use — that falls into the category of sustainability. Does an aboriginal art exhibit fall under that category? Not for me.”

On the other hand, says Du Bois, “The Olympics is all about hype. It’s not surprising to see some exaggeration and expanding definitions to suit the situation.”

He also points out that the pressure to produce a green games has grown exponentially since Vancouver won the Olympic bid in 2003.

“Sustainability has gone from the bottom to the top of the list as far as public attention goes,” says Du Bois.

Delivering on the promise
Du Bois does have high praise, however, for the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Vancouver, where about 3,000 athletes will stay (another 3,000 will stay in the village at the Whistler ski resort).

“It has really delivered on the Olympic bid promise of sustainably built buildings,” he says of the village, also known as the Southeast False Creek Project. The development will become a mixed-use neighborhood after the games, complete with restaurants, shops, parks, and condos (a percentage of which will be rented at below-market value as affordable housing).

Robin Petri, manager of development at the project, says the 85-parcel of land was earmarked by the city for use as “a model of sustainable development” in the 1990s.

The project didn’t kick into high gear until Vancouver won the Olympic bid, says Petri, who is “quite pleased” at the world attention now riveted on the development. The high profile has been helpful for highlighting Vancouver’s ongoing sustainability efforts, Petri says.

“We were doing a cool project anyway, but the Olympics brings an international audience," Petri says.

Highlights of the project include:

  • Buildings are heated in part by heat recovered from sewers, the first time this system been implemented in North America, according to Petri.
  • All underground parking accommodates plug-ins for electric vehicles.
  • About 50 percent of the residential buildings have roofs covered in grass, which absorb rainwater, provide insulation, and attract wildlife.
  • Built-in energy monitors with digital displays will tell future residents at a glance how much energy and water their homes are consuming.
  • The Net-Zero building, scheduled for affordable housing after the games, is designed to produce as much energy as it consumes, using solar hot water panels and waste heat.
  • All buildings are built to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, and the development is targeted for a new LEED program that certifies entire neighborhoods.

A spectacle that will come and go
Least likely to buy into hype around the Olympics are Vancouverites themselves. David Jordan, the editor of Granville Magazine and associate editor of BC Business, offers scant praise for Olympic sustainability efforts.

"They’ll leave a few green buildings, which I guess are better than the alternative, but not better than no buildings at all," he said in an e-mail. "[T]he games are just a spectacle that will come and go. I don’t believe anyone — even games organizers — would try to make any claim about a lasting legacy of sustainability.”

The only way to have a truly sustainable Olympics is to “not have it anymore,” points out Du Bois. The second best option, he says, would be to have it in the same place every year.

Meanwhile, future Olympic host cities, including London in 2012, must make a gold-medal effort to reduce waste and pollution.

“London,” says Du Bois, “has a pretty good opportunity to top Vancouver by a good margin.”