The Olympics being just around the corner, we’re all very excited about who’s coming, how big each venue will be, and our favorite events. But as everyone is looking forward to counting how medals our home country has won, one has to wonder…where do they come from? Sure, they’re given to the athletes after a well-deserved victory, but what kind of resources are used to create them?
The reality is that the amount of metal needed to cast the medals is fairly negligible on a worldwide scale. However, the fact that the Tokyo Organizing Committee made the controversial decision to change the method of material acquisition has made waves. Let us explain. This upcoming Olympic medals will be made of e-waste. How can this work, you ask? It’s actually quite straightforward. The Japanese public has been gathering their old cell phones and electronic devices for the last eighteen months. This gathering has added up to over 50,000 tons of items including consoles, laptops, and cameras. These devices and more all contain trace amounts of gold, silver, and bronze that are all quite viable for the casting of new medals by the Old Metals New Medals project. It is typical practice that Olympic host cities procure metals by asking mining companies for donations.
“The project has offered the public an opportunity to play an important role in the games’ preparations, at the same time drawing attention to the importance of sustainability under the Tokyo 2020 slogan Be Better, Together – for the Planet and the People,” said the Tokyo Organizing Committee in a statement.
The Olympic teams are very much behind this initiative, especially team Great Britain, whose spokesman stated that Old Metals New Medals was an excellent cause worthy of both encouraging people to recycle and supporting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The amount of materials recovered from the e-waste is quite impressive, with 70 pounds of gold, 7716 pounds of silver, and 4850 pounds of bronze. All of it is quite sufficient to cast new medals for each of the Olympic events. To compare to the 2012 London Olympics, 21 pounds of gold, 2667 pounds of silver, and 1543 pounds of bronze were used to produce medals for these events.
Interestingly enough, though Japan is poor in natural resources, its gold and silver within small consumer electronics are equivalent to an average of 20% of the world’s reserves, surpassing those of any natural resources-rich nation.
This endeavor, however, has come with enormous challenges. In 2016 when the initiative was first proposed, Japan had not yet implemented a system for collecting unwanted consumer electronics. A staggering 650,000 tons of small electronics and home appliances are discarded in Japan every year. Still, only about 100,000 tons are collected in an e-waste system that came to fruition in 2013. The Environment Ministry has done its best to take action by calling on municipalities to target collecting half a pound of small consumer electronics per person per year, but the numbers have more than fallen short at two ounces per person. However, the Japanese have enthusiastically come together to make medals from their metals. This leaves us wondering if this practice will become the norm for all future Olympic Games or whether this is just a one-time occurrence.
The 2020 Olympics will be Tokyo’s second time hosting the games. The city hosted its first game in 1964. Tokyo will have spent over $20 billion by the start of the summer Games.