Tokyo Olympic medals to be made from your electronic waste

Japan may not have many natural reserves, but the country does have a stockpile of discarded metal thanks to consumers.


Workers in a Chinese factory pulling apart e-waste for recycable resources.

Jay Greene/CNET

The Rio 2016 Olympics has wrapped up, but organizers of the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo are already planning to capitalize on stockpiles of e-waste to make the games more sustainable.

Japan may have few natural resources, but this does not mean the country, well-known for technology use, does not have a stockpile of rare earths made up from discarded mobile devices and consumer electronics.

According to the Nikkei business review, this "urban mine" could be excavated for precious metals in preparation for the next round of games and the required medals.

According to the publication, 9.6kg of gold, 1,210kg of silver and 700kg of copper was used in the 2012 London Olympics to produce competitor medals. In comparison, Japan was able to recover 143kg of gold, 1,566kg of silver and 1,112 tons of copper in 2014 alone from consumer electronics which were thrown away.

In June, officials of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, as well as telecommunications firms and recycling companies met to discuss a proposal pushed forward to use some of Japan's e-waste stockpile for the Olympic cause.

Japan stores 16 percent and 22 percent of the world's total gold and silver reserves, respectively. This stockpile has been created in part due to redundant electronics and has made it possible for Japan to hold more precious metals than many countries where these resources can be mined naturally.

As noted by Dezeen, recycling also played a part in the Rio 2016 Olympics. The silver and bronze medals contained roughly 30 percent recycled metals, and 50 percent of the ribbons awarded came from recycled plastic bottles.

To harness e-waste stores, however, Japan does need to implement a better collection system. A substantial amount of e-waste is thrown away in the country every year, an estimated 650,000 tons, but many of the rare metals extracted from these products are recycled for use in new electronics or are missed entirely.

Takeshi Kuroda, president of ReNet Japan Group, a used home appliances company which backed the proposal, commented:

"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."


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