August 31, 2016


Making Olympic Gold Medals from 'Urban Mine' Sources

Keywords: Newsletter Reduce / Reuse / Recycle 

JFS Newsletter No.168 (August 2016)

Copyright Sustainability Design Institute All rights reserved.

We reported in the June 2016 JFS Newsletter that the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will focus on sustainability and the Organising Committee is making efforts toward sustainable sourcing and management.

JFS Newsletter No.166 (June 2016)
"Aiming for Sustainable Tokyo Olympic, Paralympic Games"

One of the actions for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will be to make the gold, silver and bronze medals using recycled metals recovered from electric and electronic devices discarded in urban areas, often called an "urban mine." This month we report on a proposal to make medals from recycled materials by analyzing a special webpage on "urban mine medals" at the Sustainability Design Institute's website.

"Special urban mine medals webpage" (Japanese only)

Medal Production's Effects on the Global Environment

Recently the Olympic Games have become more than a sports festivity, aiming for creation of a sustainable society as well. The 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will also focus on sustainability as a legacy for the future. The interim plan published on January 25, 2016 advocates for using the "urban mine" to make medals.

Why would using the "urban mine" lead to creation of a sustainable society? To extract gold, silver or copper from a natural mine requires hundreds to thousands times more of the Earth's resources than the weight of the metal finally produced, and the use of mercury in the production process risks disrupting the global environment.

Electronic waste, the "urban mine's ore," often releases toxic material when illegally disposed without being recycled. Known as "e-waste," it is brought into developing countries from developed countries and is causing the so-called "e-waste crisis." These are the reasons the use of the "urban mine" could lead to creation of a sustainable society by decreasing the load on the global environment.

Japan enacted the Basic Act on Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society in 2000 and has also established laws for recycling various materials, such as the Law for Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging, the Home Appliance Recycling Law, the Construction Waste Recycling Law and the End-of-life Vehicle Recycling Law. It thus encourages its people to recycle materials, and has achieved the world's highest waste recycling rates.

Using metals recovered from the "urban mine" to make Olympic medals will provide an opportunity to share Japan's recycling efforts with the world. In particular, it would be a good chance to encourage people in Asian and African countries who are suffering from e-waste problems, by showing appropriate ways of recycling.

Toward First-Ever Medals Made of Recovered Metals

It is said that making medals with recycled materials was once considered for the London 2012 Olympics, but eventually abandoned when gold was donated by a major resource company.

The silver and bronze medals awarded during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are said to contain 30 percent recycled materials. As for the gold medals, however, the organizers made no mention of the use of recycled materials, though they said that the gold medals were produced by sustainable processes not involving mercury.

Under these circumstances, if gold medals for Tokyo 2020 are made from e-waste collected by people, it will mark a first in Olympics history.

To become the first of a kind, however, involves difficulties. Some people may say that there is no need to work so hard to blaze a trail, though they understand the intention. It is therefore necessary to ensure growing support from the public and appeal to the final decision makers on the procurement of medal materials.

In the summer of 2015, three cities actively engaging in recycling of end-of-life small home appliances proposed using recovered metals for the medals to be awarded at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. These cities are Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture, Odate in Akita Prefecture, and Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture.

In addition to these cities, many other municipalities across the nation are recycling small home appliances. Their collaborative efforts will give impetus to the creation of Olympic medals from the "urban mine." Furthermore, support from each individual can also help promote the initiative.

Recycling of Small Home Appliances in Japan

The Act on Promotion of Recycling Small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment came into effect in April 2013, and actual implementation began the following year. In 2014, about 20 percent of Japan's municipalities, or 25 percent in terms of population, launched efforts to recycle small home appliance waste. The ratio further increased in 2015 to nearly 50 percent of municipalities or 70 percent of Japan's population. Including those that were preparing for or giving positive consideration to recycling, municipalities covering about 90 percent of the population have been working toward the recycling of small home appliance waste.

The recycling of small electronic devices is carried out by recycling business operators certified by the Japanese government. Nationally 45 companies are certified operators, who receive small electric devices gathered by local governments and then sort, dismantle and send them to smelters to recover metals.

In 2013, the first year of the project, a total of 13,236 tons of small electric and electronic devices were sent to certified operators. Some had been collected by municipalities across the nation (9,772 tons) and others had been brought directly to the operators by citizens and companies. They broke the devices down into their parts and sorted them, sending 8,582 tons to the smelters. Among the metals extracted from them, iron accounted for the largest portion in weight (6,599 tons), followed by aluminum (505 tons) and copper (381 tons). Extracted precious metals including gold and silver amounted to 494 kilograms.

Possible to Supply Material for Medals from Recycled E-Waste

Concerning the gold, silver and copper used for Olympic medals, 46 kilograms of gold and 446 kilograms of silver were recovered in 2013, with 381 tons of copper also recovered. Moreover, in 2014, when the recycling of small electric devices began to be promoted, three times the amount of gold, silver and copper was recovered from discarded small electric devices.

How do these amounts compare with those necessary to make the Olympic medals? We performed an estimate, referring to the London Olympics.

In the Olympics and Paralympics, over 4000 medals are awarded. If they are produced with the ratio of components defined in the Olympic Charter, we will need 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 kilograms of silver and 700 kilograms of copper. We can obtain enough gold and copper just from the discarded small electric devices gathered at the pace they have been so far.

Although there would be a slight deficiency of silver at the 2014 level, the collection rate appeared to improve in 2015 and may be sufficient if we continue our efforts. Silver is recycled and reproduced in bulk from the x-ray films used for medical checkups, so there is an adequate supply of silver if we consider recycling as a whole.

The special urban mine medals webpage features a picture of a prototype medal coated with gold obtained from discarded electronic substrates. We are looking forward to seeing this initiative bear fruit and "urban mine medals" emblazon athletes at the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Edited by Nobuhiro Tanabe