Tokyo 2020 Organizers Eye “Urban Mine” as Source for Olympic Medals

Technology Tokyo 2020 - August 30th, 2016
olympic-medals-recycled-electronics

Could the medals to be awarded at the next Olympic Games be made from the smartphone that you’re using to read this story?

The Rio Olympics have only recently wound up, but preparations for Tokyo 2020 are in full swing – from the athletes who are already planning their multiyear training regimes and the architects who are making their final touches on their blueprints. Of course, each time a city hosts the Games, they want to put their own unique imprint on the event, and Tokyo already managed to get plenty of social media attention with the “Super Shinzo” routine at the closing ceremony. Organizers have also announced that they also want to put an original touch on one of the most symbolic of Olympic items: the medals.

Instead of using precious metals taken from the earth, organizers are eyeing an “urban mine” from which they’ll extract the gold, silver, and bronze. Don’t expect to find this mine out in the far reaches of Tama, though; the source of these precious metals lies closer at hand – you’re probably looking at it right now. This urban mine comes from the electronics that get dumped out every year.

The idea was first put forth during a June meeting that included Olympic and Paralympic committee members, government officials, and executives from mobile phone, precious metals, and recycling firms. According to a report on Nikkei, this urban mine has already offered up an impressive yield. In 2014, a total of 143kg of gold, 1,566kg of silver, and 1,112 tons of copper (which is the main component of bronze) were extracted from discarded consumer electronics in Japan. (For comparison, the quantities needed to forge the medals used in the 2012 London Olympics were 9.6kg of gold, 1,210kg of silver and 700kg of copper.)

There are some hurdles to be cleared in order to turn these discarded electronics into the medals that will be hung around the necks of the victorious athletes, however. One of them, as the Nikkei explains, is that a system for collecting used consumer electronics still needs to be implemented. Another problem is that the impressive amount of metal that was reclaimed from consumer electronics are usually used to make more consumer electronics.

To help make this sustainable dream a reality, Genki Net for Creating a Sustainable Society – the organization that called the June meeting – have called for companies to put forth their own proposals to make this urban mine become a reality.

Tokyo’s eye on recycled metal medals is part of a growing trend, which you may have already noticed if you were paying close attention during the awards ceremonies in Rio: instead of a bouquet of perishable flowers to go with their medals, athletes received a small sculpture of the Rio Olympic logo. Here’s hoping that the medals being bestowed in 2020 are smart in more than one way.