Organizers of the Tokyo Olympic Games recently came under fire when a viral video revealed 4,000 uneaten bento boxes being carted away from the opening ceremony. Although the food was not discarded outright and was sent instead to become animal feed or biofuel, this mistake runs counter to “Mottainai” spirit and the Tokyo Games’s proclaimed commitment to sustainability. Beyond that, the waste represents lost resources, energy, and time, as well as additional cost and effort for organizing its disposal.
Food waste at massive events can seem inevitable – organizers generally must plan for the maximum number of mouths to feed and build in contingencies for disrupted supply or service. At the Olympics, attendees from all over the world want food they are familiar with or that meet religious or dietary restrictions, as well as local delicacies. In Tokyo, this adds up to 700 menu options, served in up to 48,000 meals a day across the Olympic Village’s cafeterias.
To meet this volume and variety of demand, organizers may have to source ingredients from far away, which is often expensive and energy-intensive. They may also end up wasting a lot of food to keep ingredients stocked for every meal option, without being able to predict what the athletes will want to eat on any given day.
At previous Olympics, we’ve seen food waste solutions like the Refetto-Rio Project at the 2016 Rio Olympics bring surplus from Olympic Village to those in need. However, a more efficient and permanent solution to hunger would be to prevent the surplus and establish dedicated programs to provide nutritious food to the poor and homeless. After the opening ceremony incident, Tokyo organizers have already adjusted their ordering procedure to avoid repeating the mistake.
The COVID-related restrictions implemented this year in Tokyo provide a fascinating experiment that could guide future food waste reduction strategies. Since athletes are barred from dining at local restaurants, the Olympic Village is the sole food provider and therefore has greater control over food management practices. Centralizing food production and distribution allows for better planning and sharing of ingredients. Players are only allowed limited time to eat, to limit contact with each other, which forces them to be more deliberate in their meal choices. The athletes are allowed to eat in their rooms rather than a cafeteria – the portion control of a pre-packaged meal also cuts down on food waste, although there can be trade-offs with packaging waste.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what food waste lessons can be learned from the uniquely restrictive nature of this year’s Olympic Games. Organizers of future events may be able to replicate choices that improve efficiency and reduce waste, while still providing their customers – in this case, the world’s elite athletes – with nutritious and culturally appropriate meals.