Electronic waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream, but Tokyo is doing its part to divert e-waste from landfills by turning trash into treasure. The city is repurposing donated e-waste, which can release toxins into soil and water bodies, to make medals for the 2020 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in the city next summer.
Electronic waste is rich in precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum, and copper. Although the amounts of these metals found in individual devices are small, the large quantity of e-waste combined accounts for significant amounts of waste precious metals. The gold found in the world’s e-waste, for instance, is estimated to equal as much as 11% of the total amount of the metal mined every year. And Japan is using that it to its advantage.
The 5,000 medals awarded to next year's winners will be entirely crafted out of metal extracted from recycled electronic devices donated by Japanese citizens. The medals’ designs were unveiled on Tuesday, and organizers say they are the first sustainable medals made possible through public contributions.
“A project that allows the people of Japan to take part in creating the medals is really good,” Koji Murofushi, the sports director of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, said at a news conference in 2017, when the plan was first announced.
“There’s a limit on the resources of our earth, so recycling these things will make us think about the environment,” he added.
Although, this is not the first time Olympic medals will be made from recycled materials — the medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics were made from 30% recycled materials — this is the first time the medals will be made completely out of them.
Over the past two years, organizers have been gathering tons of metal from discarded electronics to yield of gold, silver, and bronze for medals and the prize collection boxes at the games.
According to municipal authorities, around 78,985 tons of used cell phones and other electronic devices were collected throughout the campaign, which ran from April 2017 to March of this year. Japanese phone operators like NTT Docomo featured in-store collection points for customers to drop off their old devices as part of the initiative. And more than 6.21 million cellphones were donated by customers from which authorities were able to extract a total of about 32 kilograms (approximately 70 pounds) of gold and 12,000 pounds (six tons) of silver and bronze.
Earlier this month, the committee announced that its effort to make next year’s Summer Olympics greener won’t stop with medals. The podiums used at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games will be made out of recycled plastic for the first time in the game’s history. Around 45 tons of recycled plastic will be required to build 100 podiums.
The plastic will be retrieved from seas during ocean cleaning initiatives. Collection boxes have also been installed at thousands of malls across the country where citizens can donate plastic waste for recycling.
Both announcements are part of the Olympic organizing committee’s and the country’s broader sustainability drive.
The official uniform worn by Japanese athletes at the Olympics will be partially made from recycled clothing and plastic bottles. Organizers of the event have also pledged to use 100% renewable power and to offset carbon-dioxide emissions that cannot be avoided.
"By sending that message to both Japan and the rest of the world, we think this project will have great significance," he said.