The medals in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be maybe just a little more hard-earned than usual: The Japanese organizers are hoping to source the medals from e-waste, stripping gold, silver, and bronze from old gadgets and cellphones.
According to the Asian Review, the 2012 London Olympics used 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 kg of silver and 700 kg of copper. Going by today’s gold price, that’s $414,636 for the gold alone. But the gold medal isn’t pure gold. The average weight of an Olympic gold medal is 176.4 grams, or 6.2 ounces. Of that, just six grams or 0.2 ounces is pure gold, the rest being silver and copper.
Amazingly, Japan’s "urban mines" contain 16% of the world’s gold reserves, and 22% of its silver, or 6,800 tons of gold, according to Japan’s Sumitomo corporation. For a more understandable example, one ton of discarded PC computers contains more gold than is contained in 17 tons of gold ore.
Tokyo’s Olympic committee met with Japan’s Ministry of the Environment and the phone company NTT DoCoMo to plan the idea, but the main problem isn’t making the medals—after all, gold is gold—but collecting it. Japan still only treats a small percentage of its e-waste, around 24% to 30% last year, according to estimates from a United Nations University study, despite the 2013 introduction of a law regulating the recycling of small appliances.
Getting enough recycled gold together to make Olympic medals seems easy enough, but the program could also be used as leverage to improve Japan’s e-waste collection and processing. Japan’s Environment Ministry has set a target to collect of 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) from each person per year, but so far, says the Asian Review, municipalities aren’t even managing 100 grams per person.
Mining e-waste reduces landfill waste and may avoid the need for exploitative mines in places like Democratic Republic of Congo. And it’s big money. In Europe alone, there is over €2 billion in potential revenues sitting around in piles, just waiting to be extracted.
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