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Tokyo's Olympic medals might be made from discarded smartphones

Organizers want to produce gold, silver, and bronze medals from 'urban mine' of e-waste

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Organizers of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo aim to produce gold, silver, and bronze medals from the metals found in discarded smartphones and other electronics, according to a report from the Nikkei Asian Review. As the business journal reports, Olympic organizers, government officials, and executives first discussed the plan during a June meeting organized by a Japanese NGO. The hope is that such a scheme would help raise awareness around so-called "e-waste," though Japan would need to implement a more comprehensive system for collecting discarded electronics.

Japan isn't as resource-rich as other countries, though it does have a large "urban mine" of precious metals found in e-waste. According to Nikkei, the gold and silver contained in the country's discarded electronics account for 16 percent and 22 percent of global supply, respectively, and its e-waste supply should be sufficient to produce Olympic medals. The medals awarded to athletes in the 2012 Olympic Games were produced from 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 kilograms of silver, and 700 kilograms of copper. In 2014 Japan recovered 143 kilograms of gold, 1,566 kilograms of silver, and 1,112 tons of copper from discarded devices, according to Nikkei.

"one of the world's fastest growing waste streams"

"In order for all Japanese people to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, we are asking companies to propose a concrete collection proposal and would like to work with the Olympic organizing committee to realize the proposal," Yuko Sakita, of the NGO Genki Net for Creating a Sustainable Society, tells the newspaper. The NGO organized the June meeting, which was attended by organizers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as representatives from technology and mining companies.

Electronic waste has become a major concern for environmental groups, with the UN describing it as "one of the world's fastest growing waste streams" in both developed and developing countries. A 2013 report from the UN's Step initiative projected the global volume of e-waste to increase by 33 percent by 2017, increasing the potential for toxic materials like lead, mercury, and cadmium to enter soil and water.

According to Nikkei, Japan generates approximately 650,000 tons of e-waste every year, though less than 100,000 tons are collected — and much of that amount goes toward producing new electronics. Many municipalities in Japan have fallen short of the collection targets set by the Environment Ministry, but the hope is that the Olympic medal initiative could encourage more electronic recycling.


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