Daily life 6 min
Olympic Games: Polymers back in the game
With little or no crowds, the Tokyo Olympic Games will not go down in history as being the most festive games. However, for the athletes the most important thing will always be performance and records. This means that the equipment will be put to the test, as will the polymers that they are made of.
Olympic Games: Polymers back in the game
Olympic Games: Polymers back in the game

Passing the baton to recycled plastics

Sometimes criticised for being expensive, the Olympic Games are now aiming to be more reasonable in their expenditure. Gone are the days of the “folie de grandeur”, when pharaonic new infrastructures were built for each Olympiad. As proof, out of the 43 venues in Japan, 25 already existed, 8 were built for the occasion and will be given a second life after the Games, and 10 are temporary (surfing, road cycling, cross-country, etc.).


Thanks to the plastics, the organisers were able to set up lightweight structures at the temporary venues. The second life of these structures has already been planned for.


For the latter sports, lightweight and easily dismantled structures were chosen to accommodate the public, the athletes and the medal ceremonies.
These sites, which are often located in the middle of nature, must be returned to their original state after the events. Various materials are used although mainly PVC, a strong, inflatable material that can take on any shape and is easily recyclable.
The same applies to the many tents (usually made of PVC or polyethylene) that will house the equipment, refreshment stands or even the judges on the temporary sites.
To make sure that they are given a second life after the Games, the organisers opted to rent these structures rather than buy them.

Athletes as ambassadors of the circular economy

Recycling synthetic textiles or designing new fibres from plastic waste, particularly marine waste, is one of the major trends of the moment. The first equipment manufacturer present at the Games to take on the challenge is Japan's Asics, which unveiled the official outfit for Japanese athletes over a year ago.

© Asics

Japanese equipment manufacturer Asics made a splash by creating the official outfits of Japanese athletes from recycled fibres.

These outfits will be seen by billions of people as they are worn during the various ceremonies, including the opening ceremony. The manufacturer considered it vital to make the outfits a success, given the exposure they would be getting. However, the media did not pay much attention to the outfits, preferring to focus on the material used. For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, a delegation was dressed entirely in clothing made from recycled polyester fibres. The media stunt was very well prepared; in 2018, Asics launched a major campaign to collect used sportswear in Japan and focused on recycling polyester. Asics announced that it had worked for 4 years to develop this collection called "Japonism" whose design evokes the legendary rising sun. The company does not intend to stop there, as it has announced its intention to continue developing new products from recycled polymers and hopes to be able to produce 100% recycled polymer shoes by 2030. 

Polymers reaching for glory

Sustainability being a key commitment of this Olympiad, it will not be uncommon to see posters in Tokyo bearing the slogan "be better together, for the planet and for people". This commitment is reflected, among other things, in the design of the podiums for the medal ceremonies, which are made entirely of recycled plastic. This is another first in the long history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. To make sure that they make an impression, the Games' organisers called on Tokolo Asao, a world-renowned Japanese designer, who was supported by a team of material scientists. The designer's idea was to evoke the harmony between peoples that events like the Olympics allow. As a result, the podium no longer comprises three separate painted cubes placed next to each other, but rather a set of pieces that fit together, a bit like a three-dimensional puzzle.

© P&G

The medal podiums, created by a renowned designer, were made from recycled polymers. 

When it was launched in 2019, the recycled plastic podium project enlisted the help of the Japanese people. In partnership with the Procter and Gamble Group, 2,000 collection bins for used packaging were specifically set up around the country. In total, 24.5 tonnes of used plastic, the equivalent of about 400,000 900-gram bottles of washing powder, were collected over a period of 9 months.

While the organisers of the Tokyo 2020 Games claim to be the first in the history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to rely on public participation, it is also a way of raising awareness of the importance and value of waste separation in a country that, incidentally, is already one of the world's best performers in this regard.

The end-of-life polymers were subsequently melted, dyed and spun to feed a 3D printer. The podiums were printed in the form of small cubes weighing 1.5 kg each, which can be assembled a bit like Lego®. They are lightweight, easy to transport and easy to handle. A total of 98 podiums were produced.

The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee has set itself the target of using recycled materials and re-using or recycling 99% of everything created specifically for the Games. At the end of the event, the podium cubes will be distributed or sold as souvenirs or even displayed by their owners. Tokolo Asao also hopes that the embassies in Tokyo will keep them. "This kind of thing is a legacy, I think. I would be happy if the children who look at these podiums 50 years from now can say that the adults of that time made an effort to leave them a clean planet."

Plastics make weight

In 2019, car manufacturer Toyota unveiled the APM (Accessible People Move), an electric shuttle that will transport athletes, officials and, if necessary, people with reduced mobility from the village to the competition venues. The organisers are very proud of it. Toyota has put all its know-how into this 5-seater vehicle, which is capable of travelling around 100 km at 19 km/h. Packed with features, the shuttle can accommodate a wheelchair once the rear seats are folded back. A fold-out access ramp has even been fitted on the vehicle. A total of 200 APMs will be operating in Tokyo this summer. Some will be transformed into mini ambulances capable of transporting an injured person on a stretcher along with medical personnel.

© Toyota

The APM, a mini electric vehicle specially developed by Toyota for the Olympic Games, is a real Swiss Army knife of a vehicle.

To achieve such feats, the vehicle had to be designed in a lightweight, easily mouldable and above all robust material. Which one(s)? Toyota is keeping that a secret, but it is more than likely that polymers feature heavily; as the shuttle’s body is completely open on both sides (without doors or windows), the interior must be able to withstand the torrential rain that is common in Tokyo in summer.

The APM’s very respectable range is certainly a function of its weight, which we imagine to be very low. Other manufacturers have chosen to make vehicles of this type from an aluminium chassis onto which are grafted composite body parts (a fibreglass and an epoxy resin for example) or possibly a fibreglass-reinforced polyester.

The above examples show that the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics are well on the way to successfully running the most sustainable Olympic Games in history. Although sometimes singled out for criticism, plastics have a significant part to play in the success of this undertaking, especially as bins for collecting recyclable waste (plastics, paper, aluminium, etc.) will be distributed throughout the Olympic venues.

Tokyo hopes that the organisers of the next Olympics will take into account the environmental innovations developed during this Olympiad. The bar has been set high and Paris, the host of the 2024 Games, has been working on the subject for several years. One thing is already certain: polymers, which are constantly improving in terms of technical performance and sustainability, will be essential partners in the success of the future Games.

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