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Cautionary Tale: New ‘Sustainable’ Olympic Medals Decaying

A big deal was made about the sustainability factor of the Rio Olympics, with Dow, for example, working with partner companies and nonprofits to implement a host of energy- and resource-efficiency initiatives and technologies in the sectors of agriculture, manufacturing, packaging and construction. But one sustainability move may not have been the wisest choice: the Olympic medals, touted as symbols of sustainability, are being sent back by athletes because they are flaking, rusting, and decaying, according to Heat Street.

Last year’s medals were made of 30% recycled silver and bronze, with the gold medals “meeting sustainability criteria from extraction to refining, as well as meeting strict environmental and labour laws,” the International Olympic Committee wrote last June. The raw silver came from leftover mirrors, waste solders and X-ray plates, and 40% of the copper used in the bronze medals came from waste at the Mint. Athletes received their medals in a “sustainably sourced wooden box,” the committee said.

But winning athletes have begun sending the medals back because of deterioration.

An Olympic spokesman told heat Street that between 6% and 7% of all medals were affected. A Rio Games spokesman said that most of the returned medals were dropped, mishandled, or kept at improper temperatures, and it hasn’t been absolutely proven that the deterioration of the medals is due to the recycled materials. However, this has never been a problem with medals from previous games. In the past, though, athletes have been taught how to care for their medals, which didn’t happen at last year’s games.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is continuing to pursue sustainability. Toyota will be providing “sustainable mobility solutions,” according to an IOC press release last December. Toyota has already delivered a new fleet of hybrid cars for the IOC administration.

Meanwhile, Paris’ bid for the 2024 Olympics says it will be the most sustainable Games ever. The Games would be fully aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement, that 95% of planned facilities are existing or temporary venues, and that an emissions strategy will result in a 55% smaller carbon footprint than London 2012 – said to be the most sustainable Games ever, wrote Olympic Bid News. Paris 2024 says it’s the first bid committee going after ISO 20121 certification and would also be on track to become the first carbon neutral Games. A host city for the 2024 Olympics will be announced in September.

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