2020 Tokyo Olympics Medals Will Be Made From Metals Recovered From E-Waste

CC BY 2.0. Derek Gavey

By reclaiming precious metals from its 'urban mine' of obsolete electronics, Japan may be able to produce the medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics from recycled materials.

When it comes to the environmental impact of the Olympic games, the source of the metals that go into making the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to the winning athletes isn't that big of a deal when put into the context of the huge energy demands, the massive transportation footprint, and the boondoggle that is the construction (and often abandonment) of the facilities for competitions and athlete housing. However, because of how prized these medals are, and how often top athletes are described being Olympic medal winners, the iconic awards might be a great choice for a symbol of the need for sustainability in all aspects of future games, and Japan could be a frontrunner in this in 2020.

According to recent reports, the proposal to make the medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics out of reclaimed metals from e-waste, such as smartphones and other gadgets, is moving forward, and the country could be able to source all the materials for the medals for both the Olympic and Paralympic games just from its own e-waste. This isn't the first time that sustainability has been considered in the Olympic awards, as the recent Rio 2016 gold medals were made with gold "extracted without the use of mercury" (and produced according to strict sustainability criteria), the silver and bronze medals contained 30% recycled materials, and half of the plastic that went into the ribbons came from recycled plastic bottles.

Japan's 2020 Olympic medals proposal could achieve something much more meaningful, however, as the use of discarded electronics as a source material would be a great example of the viability of mining the vast amounts of e-waste produced each year, in contrast to the environmental impacts of virgin mineral extraction that is the status quo.

Figures from the Nikkei Asia Review state that for the medals for the 2012 London Olympics, about 9.6kg of gold, 1,210kg of silver, and 700kg of copper were used, whereas the amount of precious metals recovered from e-waste in Japan in 2014 consisted of 143kg of gold, 1,566kg of silver, and 1,112 tons of copper, which is more than enough to cover the making of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic medals. Interestingly enough, Japan's 'urban mine' of small consumer electronics is said to contain the equivalent of 16% of the world's reserves of gold, and 22% of the world's silver reserves, which is a considerable feat for a nation with virtually no precious metals mining.

This recycled metal medals scheme is not without its challenges, though, as the nation hasn't fully implemented a collection system for consumer e-waste, even with the passage of a 2013 law calling for the recycling of all small home appliances. According to Nikkei, less than 100,000 tons (out of a total of 650,000 tons) of discarded e-waste is collected each year, and a government target of collecting 1 kg of small consumer electronics annually per person often falls very short. In order to collect enough materials for the 'urban mine' of e-waste to cover the Olympic medal project, a group of Olympic organizers, government officials, and company executives is looking for companies to "propose a concrete collection proposal" that can be implemented in the near future.

"We need a system that makes it easy for consumers to turn in used consumer electronics. A collection system should be created by the private sector, and central and local governments should be in charge of publicizing such private services. If this public-private cooperation progresses, the collection of electronic waste should also progress." - Takeshi Kuroda, president of ReNet Japan Group

Even with the implementation of an efficient e-waste collection system, the proposal for recycled metals in the Olympic medals may still fall short, as much of the metals currently being recovered from e-waste is already put back into circulation as new electronics, especially silver, which "faces a tight supply-demand balance" in Japan.