Japan Plans to Make Olympic Medals Out of Electronic Waste

Organizers hope to reclaim gold, silver and copper from the used electronics for the 2020 games

Old cell phones
Winai_Tepsuttinun via iStock

Anyone with a cell phone in their pocket may be carrying around a bit of Olympic history—or Olympic future, that is. That’s because the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics recently announced that they will make the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded at the game from materials recovered from electronics donated by the public, reports Andrew McKirdy at The Japan Times.

Starting in April, the Olympic committee is asking consumers to drop off their old electronic devices in collection boxes placed in more than 2,400 NTT Docomo telecom stores around the island nation and "an undecided number of public offices throughout the country," according to a press release.

As Elaine Lies at Reuters reports, the committee hopes to recover eight tons of gold, silver and copper from millions of cell phones and other recycled devices. After processing that should yield about two tons of purified metal, enough to manufacture the 5,000 medals needed to award athletes of the Olympics and Paralympics.

“There's quite a limit on the resources of our earth, and so recycling these things and giving them a new use will make us all think about the environment,” Sports Director of Tokyo 2020 Koji Murofushi, 2004 Athens Olympics hammer-throw gold medalist told a news conference, reports Lies. "Having a project that allows all the people of Japan to take part in creating the medals that will be hung around athletes' necks is really good."

“The weight of a medal around your neck is always a good weight,” retired American decathlete and world record holder Ashton Eaton, says in a press release. “And when an athlete at Tokyo wins a medal, the weight of it will not be from the gold, silver or bronze; it will be the weight of a nation.The awesomeness of this project makes me want to come out of retirement and compete for one.”

While the project is a positive step in promoting sustainability, that’s not the only reason for the recycling program, reports Associated France-Presse reports. The 2020 Olympics have come under criticism for the game’s soaring price tag. By some estimates the games could cost $30 billion, quadruple initial figures and three times as costly as the 2012 London games. To try to limit the cost of the games, the 2020 committee released a revised budget in December, which capped the costs at $17 billion. The recycling project is seen as public indicator that the committee is taking cost-cutting measures seriously.

The new medals will not be the first made with recycled material. According to the International Olympic Committee, the 5,130 medals produced by the Brazilian mint for the 2016 Rio Olympics were made from 30 percent recycled metals. They extracted the silver from mirrors, solder and x-ray plates and got the copper for the bronze medals from waste produced by the mint.

The 2010 Vancouver winter games also used metals recycled from electronics in their medals, though the recycled content only maxed out at 1.5 percent. Tokyo, on the other hand, hopes to make their medals completely from the recycled material.

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