A July 28 article in the Tokyo Shimbun reported that some 13,000 new air conditioning units had been installed in rooms built for the Olympic Village. Once the Paralympics are finished, these rooms will be remodeled for sale as condominiums and the air conditioners removed, along with 5,000 toilets and 4,000 water heaters.

According to the organizing committee, they will be returned to the company from which they were procured, presumably to be reused in new construction. However, a representative of the second-hand sales industry said that used air conditioners are notoriously difficult to redistribute due to storage and installation issues, and most usually end up being thrown away.

It’s too early for Tokyo Shimbun to follow up on this story, but it contrasts sharply with a March 25, 2019, article in the Asahi Shimbun, an Olympic sponsor, which reported that, following their use during the Olympics and Paralympics, the air conditioners would be given free to schools and various public welfare facilities. The article also said that when the organizing committee accepted bids for the air conditioners, one condition was that the sales agent had to secure places that would take the units afterward and report to the committee about where they ended up, thus complying with the International Olympic Committee’s pledge to make the Games as sustainable as possible.

Tokyo Shimbun, which is not an official sponsor, didn’t say anything about these conditions, so the part about the air conditioning units possibly being discarded sounds like something that should be studied further.

The Olympics waste story that has attracted the most attention, however, was the July 24 Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) scoop about food being thrown away. Approximately 4,000 of the 10,000 boxed meals supplied for the opening ceremony had to be trashed because the staff and volunteers they were meant for either didn’t have time to eat them or left earlier than expected. The organizing committee apologized for its incorrect estimate.

A related problem seems to be that contracts made with food vendors were not revised after the spectator ban was announced in May, so it is likely there has been a lot more food waste than that reported by TBS.

In an article for Yahoo! News, journalist Rumi Ide, who has written extensively about food waste, expanded on the TBS report, saying she had interviewed people close to the matter. She starts off by saying that the Cabinet office in charge of the Olympics admitted that a great deal of food was thrown out, but expressed little interest in finding out the reason. In May, the organizing committee was asked about the problem of food supply after the spectator ban announcement, and the committee answered that it would cancel orders for food “that can be canceled.”

However, when Ide communicated with a source close to the situation, she was told that there had been no change in the number of meals ordered after the ban was announced and that when arrangements are made for prepared food in such large amounts for big events, the idea that a certain number will be trashed is factored in.

The implication is that once an order is placed it is very difficult to change. Also, there is a lot of money involved. Food suppliers have lost tens of millions of yen due to the pandemic, so the Olympic contracts meant a lot to those lucky enough to win them. Some food company representatives complained to Ide about the government’s response, saying that had they decided against spectators much earlier, these companies might have been able to change their orders, but as it stands they will lose even more money. For one thing, they have to buy ingredients well beforehand and if they don’t use those ingredients right away, they have to be thrown out because they can’t be stored indefinitely.

Given the changing shape of the pandemic and the large number of companies and organizations involved, Olympic food waste was inevitable, but it appears there was no alternative plan to deal with the excessive food supply. An Olympics-related working group was formulated in 2016 to address sustainability matters, and Ide wonders what the group was discussing for the past five years.

A representative of the Japan Food Bank Association told Tokyo Shimbun that food loss is an international problem but that Japan in particular seems to “lack awareness,” though Tokyo Shimbun pointed out that Twitter was filled with comments about how the uneaten food for the Olympics should have been redistributed to needy people who have been struggling through the pandemic. Reportedly, the discarded box lunches packed for the opening ceremony were turned into livestock feed and biogas. The fact that there were no alternative plans in place indicates how little real thought was put into sustainability.

Since the 1990s, the IOC has made sustainability a pillar of the so-called Olympic legacy, meaning the longer-term impact the Games have on both the host city and the world. That means not only making sure the Games themselves don’t harm the environment, but that they lead to permanent changes that have a positive effect.

One of the IOC’s conditions is that eggs supplied to the Games must not come from battery farms, where hens are kept in small cages their entire lives. The purpose is to instill a lasting awareness of animal welfare.

Last week, however, former Farm Minister Takamori Yoshikawa went on trial for allegedly taking bribes from a large egg supplier for his help in quashing animal welfare laws that would restrict the use of battery cages. Most media haven’t made the connection between Yoshikawa’s situation and the Olympics because they’ve always seen the Tokyo Games in a narrow way — as a means for Japan to show off to the world, but only for two weeks.

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