Recycling

Discarded electronic devices upcycled into Olympic medals

Used smartphones and laptops get a second life as part of Tokyo 2020.

Tokyo 2020 will see its athletes wear recycled medals.

The worlds biggest sporting event features medals sourced from recycled electronic gadgets such as smartphones and laptops.

The devices were gathered across the country as part of a national campaign.

"The campaign called on the public to donate obsolete electronic devices for the project," Toyko 2020 spokesperson Hitomi Kamizawa said. "We are grateful for everyone's cooperation."

The Tokyo Medal Project made use of the fact that e-waste is a veritable treasure trove of critical raw materials-an average phone contains around 60 critical raw materials, ranging from cobalt and copper to precious earth metals such as gold and silver. (With smartphones wont to being improperly discarded, metals worth billions either end up on landfills or get incinerated.)

90% of Japanese cities, villages and towns participated in the metal donation drive, with several hundred thousand residents donating their used phones to the cause. The concerted two-year national effort saved up enough raw materials to produce 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals.

Close to 79,000 tonnes of smaller electronic devices were collected, among them 6,21 million mobile phones. From these, 32 kg of gold, 3500 kg of silver and 2200 kg of bronze were extracted.

The project involved the participation of various stakeholders. Relevant parties included actors from the national government, the municipality, multiple companies, schools as well as other communities. Upon launch of the Tokyo Medal Project in April 2017, around 600 municipalities participated. In March 2019, at the end of the campaign, there were more than 1,600. A PR campaign coupled with easily accessible collection points was instrumental in driving the figures up.

One of the companies that got involved in the effort was Renet Japan Group. Mainly involved in the recycling and reuse business, Renet has adopted sustainability as its business philosophy.

"We developed a waste management movement for the medal project with the cooperation of many stakeholders, from the Japanese government to local communities," Toshio Kamakura, director of Renet Japan Group, said. 

Following collection, the electric devices were discarded. Contractors then refined the extracted metals and remoulded them into medals. Said medals were crafted according to plans by Japanese designer Junichi Kawanashi, who beat out 400 other concepts in a competition held by Tokyo 2020.

The concept of producing recycled medals is not new-30% of the sterling silver used to make gold and silver medals for the 2016 Rio Games derived from used car parts and mirror surfaces.

There are hopes that the Paris Games in 2024 will emulate the approach, taking the 2020 Tokyo Medal Project as an example.

E-waste is currently one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. In 2017, over 44 million tonnes were produced on a global basis-this is the equivalent in weight to all commercial aircraft ever built. E-waste rates are set to surge in the next five years as demand for high tech gadgets continues to rise and repair infrastructure and markets are only beginning to accommodate said development. Less than a fifth of scrap ends up recycled, leading to a slew of environmental and health problems as the electronic waste in question usually ends up dumped on landfills.