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Water & Sanitation

Japan Will Use Old Cell Phones to Make 2020 Olympic Medals

Ask any Olympic athlete, and they’ll stay winning a medal at the Games is special enough on its own. And once the 2020 Games roll around, the medals will carry even more symbolism.

Japan is planning to craft the gold, silver, and bronze medals from materials found in its “urban mine” of discarded electronic goods. Rather than plunder the earth for raw natural material, it will be recycling what already exists.

Olympic medals use a large amount of precious metals. The 2012 London Olympics used 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,2010 kilograms of silver, and 700 kilograms of copper (the primary ingredient in bronze) to create its medals. Traditionally, Olympic host countries ask national commercial mines to donate the metal, but Japan has limited natural resources to draw from. What it does have, though, are huge amounts of discarded electronic products.

Read More: Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals Just Hot More Valuable at Rio Olympics

Japan’s tech-focused population throws out about 650K tons of small and household electronics each year. The huge stocks of e-waste have left the nation with an estimated 16% of global gold reserves and 22% of silver, as well as a large amount of rare earth metals.

Recycling these materials  became a national priority in 2010 when a dispute with neighboring China briefly shut down rare earth metal imports that are crucial to Japan’s tech industries.

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Now the recycling initiative may be used to create the medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The challenge over the next few years will be improving the recycling process. Despite a 2013 law requiring the recycling of home electronics, Japan only recycles about 24% of its e-waste every year.

While in 2014, recycling generated about 143 kg of gold, 1,566 kg of silver and 1,112 tons of copper the competition for that relatively small amount is fierce. Particularly recovering enough silver to supply technology companies and the Olympic Games will be a challenge.

"We need a system that makes it easy for consumers to turn in used consumer electronics," Takeshi Kuroda, president of ReNet Japan Group, told the Nikkei. ReNet purchases and sells used home appliances and is part of a group who has advocated for the Tokyo Games medals to be made from recycled e-waste.

"A collection system should be created by the private sector, and central and local governments should be in charge of publicizing such private services," Kuroda said.

Read More: 6 Ways Olympic Stadiums Have Been Given New Life

Japan’s sustainable focus for the Olympics continues a recent trend. For years, host countries have worked hard to find future uses for purpose built Olympic structures. This year, the Rio Games organizers focused on improving the Olympic medals themselves. Brazil recovered about 30% of the silver used in the gold and silver medals (gold medals traditionally have a silver core) from discarded mirrors and X-ray plates. Further, the bronze medals were made from copper waste and all of the medals ribbons were made from recycled plastic.

The Tokyo 2020 Games are still four years away but the organizers are making it clear that the focus on sustainability has already started.