Karate. Surfing. Skateboarding. Sport climbing.
With the addition of four new sports (and the return of softball) to the official program of the 2020 Summer Olympics along with the promise of artificial meteor showers, driverless cars and a sizable army of robots, second-time host city Tokyo is already looking to do things a bit differently. And this includes how — and with what — the Games’ most coveted prizes are produced.
You see, Olympic host countries traditionally source the precious metals used to produce the medals from native resources with domestic mining firms donating a bulk of the materials. But as business journal Nikkei Asian Review recently explained, Japan isn’t exactly profuse in natural mineral resources — mining in the Land of the Rising Sun does exist but on a very small scale.
But what Japan does have is a staggering “urban mine” of discarded smartphones, small electronics and home appliances that contain enough precious metals in small amounts to produce all of the medals needed for the Olympic and Paralympic Games and then some.
And so, the sustainability-minded organizers of the Tokyo Games are looking towards Japan’s vast e-waste resources to produce bronze, silver and gold medals, which it should be pointed out, haven’t been crafted from solid gold since the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. Olympic gold medals are actually produced from silver with a minuscule amount — roughly 1.2 percent — of gold plating added for good measure. Silver medals are indeed just that — pure sterling silver — while bronze medals are also bronze, an alloy composed primarily of copper with a small amount of zinc. Placing monetary values on Olympic medals, a gold medal is worth $548 while a silver medal cashes in at a little under $300. (That layer of real gold, no matter how thin, makes quite the difference). A bronze medal is worth just two bucks and change.
Worth aside, Japan naturally possesses none of these raw materials. Yet the amount of silver and gold contained with its steady stream of e-waste is, as Nikkei reports, roughly equivalent to 22 percent and 16 percent, respectively, of the entire global supply. In fact, the 2012 Summer Olympics in London required the use of 9.6 kg of gold, 1,210 kg of silver and 700 kg to produce that games’ medals. In 2014, the amount of these precious metals recovered from trashed small electronics in Japan were equal to 143 kg of gold, 1,566 kg of silver and a staggering 1,112 tons of copper.
It shouldn’t be a problem then, right?
Well, it’s complicated.
Even if Japan does get the go-ahead from the International Olympic Committee to award celebrated athletes with medals generated from old iPhones, the country must seriously up its e-waste recycling game.
Surprisingly, Japan, a country in which recycling is something of a modern national pastime approached with a level of near-vigilance, e-waste is somewhat overlooked: less than 100,000 tons of the over 650,000 tons of small electronics and home appliances that are junked every year are collected for recycling. Government-mandated e-waste collection goals established in 2013 — an annual quota of 1kg of trashed consumer electronics per person — for municipalities have largely fallen short. On the other hand, you’d be hard-pressed to find paper, plastic or glass making their way into Japanese landfills.
What’s more, what rare earth metals that are recovered from trashed electronics in Japan are usually reserved to manufacture new electronics. As Nikkei notes, silver is a particularly hot commodity and, furthermore, it’s uncertain that enough silver could be reclaimed from e-waste to produce all of those silver (and gold) medals. For the just-concluded 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a total of 5,130 medals — the heaviest medals in Olympic history — were produced by the Brazilian Mint. It goes without saying that the medals awarded during the 2020 Games will likely be bigger in both size and quantity.
However, organizers of the upcoming games along with environmental officials, electronics firms and other backers of the e-waste-to-Olympic gold scheme that believe that simple public awareness campaigns should do the trick:
By raising public awareness, the amount of electronic waste that is collected and recycled could be increased. Recycling is already widespread in Japan for many products, including milk cartons and plastic bottle caps, thanks to the efforts and cooperation of environmentally conscious consumers.
Supporters of the plan are also calling for easier, streamlined e-waste collection methods. “A collection system should be created by the private sector, and central and local governments should be in charge of publicizing such private services," Takeshi Kuroda of ReNet Japan Group explains to Nikkei. "If this public-private cooperation progresses, the collection of electronic waste should also progress.”