Urban Mining in Japan: Recycled Cell Phones Used To Make Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medals

Tokyo 2020 on Sustainability

As Japan passes the halfway mark of their 7 years of preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, they are beginning to move from planning to execution. The Olympic Agenda 2020, a “strategic roadmap” intended to be a guide for the future Olympic games, was agreed upon by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014, and has a particular focus on environmental and social sustainability. In accordance, the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) has included a similar focus on sustainability in their plans.

Of the many suggestions included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Plan Version 1, one of the most notable is the concept of creating “greener medals” through urban mining and recycling. As the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to the winning athletes are some of the most essential symbols of the Olympic games, it contributes to a powerful message of prioritizing sustainability. Typically, host countries obtain the necessary precious metals by petitioning mining corporations to donate, but Japan has instead decided to make their medals out of entirely recycled elements salvaged from small consumer electronics.

Japan has few natural resources, but they make up for that lack in sheer quantity of e-waste. However, it is only useful if it can be collected and extracted. In recent years, Japan has taken it upon themselves to develop a national system for e-waste recycling, and it is this process that the Olympics committee plans to utilize.

What is Urban Mining?

Urban mining is the process of recovering plastics, glass, and precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper from discarded electronic devices and recycling them. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing categories of waste in the world as we continue to move into a digital age.

The method by which minerals are extracted from small e-waste products is still being developed, as new research provides insight into the best practices for low-cost and low-impact extraction. Most of the valuable material is found in the printed circuit board (PCB), and studies such as Design of a Proper Recycling Process for Small-sized E-waste have suggested that separating the PCB from other parts of these devices improves the quality of e-waste recycling by allowing more accurate machine pulverization and sorting.

Japan has few natural resources, but consumer electronics are ubiquitous, so urban mining provides both economic and environmental benefits. The material contained inside small consumer electronics in Japan, particularly mobile phones which tend to have the highest concentration of valuable metals, accounts for 16% of the gold and 22% of the silver reserves worldwide – that’s higher than any other nation, including countries using conventional methods of mining.

Despite the obvious benefits of urban mining, there have been stumbling blocks in the process of introducing the concept to the public. The Environment Ministry attempted to implement a system whereby municipalities were encouraged to collect 1kg from every person, but most fell far short. While there are already two laws in Japan which detail the proper methods for disposing of e-waste – the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources (LPUR) and the Law for the Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances (LRHA) – neither adequately addresses the issue of small-sized electronics. Due to the lack of clear legislation and policy regarding how to dispose of these types of products, many consumers simply include them with their regular garbage, resulting in a large quantity of mobile phones and other electronic devices being incinerated or dumped in landfills. In both cases, valuable materials are wasted, and in the later stages, toxins can often seep into the soil and water supply.

While the JOC thinks that Japan’s urban mine produces enough recycled material to use in making the medals (Japan recovered far more through urban mining in 2014 than was used to make all of the medals for the London 2012 Olympics), they ambitiously plan to collect 40kg gold, 4.920kg silver, and 2,944kg bronze for the approximately 5000 metals needed, which is significantly more than the amount of both silver and bronze than was recovered in 2014. Typically, Olympic gold and silver medals are both about 92% silver, while bronze medals are a combination of bronze, copper, and tin.

One stumbling block that the JOC has run into with their plan is that the metals salvaged from existing e-waste recycling programs are typically immediately fed back into the system and used to make new products, so there is not much surplus remaining for making Olympic medals. Silver, which is most in demand material for this project, has the least availability through existing recycling programs. It is with the intention of solving this problem that the JOC began a massive nationwide campaign on February 1st, 2017, encouraging citizens to donate their outdated and obsolete electronic devices specifically for use in making sustainable medals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games.


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Above Photo: View of Tokyo from Shibakoen. (Louie Martinez, Unsplash)