Recycled E-Waste and the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Medals

In the build up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japanese citizens have been asked to donate discarded electronic devices so that they can be recycled and used to make the medals needed for athletes at the games.

In total 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded to athletes at both the Olympics and Paralympics, which, according to The Guardian, will require 30.3 kg of gold, 4,100 kg of silver and 2,700 kg of bronze. Old mobile phones, tablets, and other small appliances such as cameras and laptops can be deposited into collection boxes placed in local offices and telecoms stores. As of June 2018, the target for bronze had been meet, and around 90 per cent of the gold and over 85 per cent of the silver had already been collected.

The idea for the project was first put forward by members of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee in 2016. Its goals are two-fold: to promote sustainability and reduce costs. Koji Murofushi, the Tokyo 2020 Sports Director, is quoted by BBC News as saying, “A project that allows the people of Japan to take part in creating the medals is really good. There’s a limit on the resources of our earth, so recycling these things will make us think about the environment.”

The organizers of the Rio Olympics also promoted this sustainable concept but not to the same extent. For the 2016 games, an estimated 30 per cent of the silver and bronze medals were made from recycled materials collected domestically. The Tokyo games are unique in that it is the first time that citizens have been directly involved in the process and encouraged to recycle their e-waste.

As Japan does not have any mineral resources of its own, the quantities of gold, silver, and bronze required for the medals would likely have had to be imported if it were not for this innovative and sustainability-promoting scheme.

“While Japan is poor in natural resources,” the Nikkei Asian Review reports that “its ‘mine’ of gold and silver contained in small consumer electronics is equivalent to 16% and 22% of the world’s total reserves, respectively – surpassing the reserves of any natural resources abundant nation.”

While the scheme has only been set up to acquire the metal quantities required, if it promotes increased awareness amongst Japanese around recycling and sustainability concepts, questions are likely to be asked about whether it should be continued.

Olympic and Paralympic medals are not the only products that can be manufactured out of recycled e-waste products and around 650,000 tons of small and home electronics waste are discarded in Japan each year. Worryingly, less than 100,000 tons of this waste is recycled each year as Japan does not have a fully implemented e-waste recycling system, though municipalities across the country are under pressure to change this.  In short, if people’s mindsets and attitudes can be changed through a ‘nation-building’ project which has effectively raised public awareness – like recycling e-waste for Olympic medals – there is likely to be potential to build on it.

Takeshi Kuroda, President of the ReNet Japan Group, a company that purchases and sells used home appliances, has an idea of what is required. He suggested to the Nikkei Asian Review, “We need a system that makes it easy for consumers to turn in used consumer electronics. A collection system should be created by the private sector, and central and local governments should be in charge of publicizing such services. If this public-private cooperation progresses, the collection of electronic waste should also progress.”


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on June 27, 2019.


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