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.


Chung, Sung-Woo, and Rie Murakami-Suzuki. “A comparative study of e-waste recycling systems in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from the EPR perspective: implications for developing countries.” Promoting 3Rs in Developing Countries: Lessons from the Japanese Experience. Michikazu Kojima Ed., Chiba, Japan (2008). 03 Mar. 2017. Halada, Kohmei, Kiyoshi Ijima, Masanori Shimada, and Nozomu Katagiri. “A Possibility of Urban Mining in Japan.” Journal of the Japan Institute of Metals and Materials 73.3 (2009): 151-60. J-Stage. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. “What Are Olympic Medals Made Of? The 2016 Medals Are Eco-Friendly.” About.com Education. N.p., 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2017. Shiratori, T., Nakamura, T. “Concept of “Artificial Deposit” 2 — Transition of the metal potential of spent electric and electronic appliances.”, Journal of MMIJ, Vol.4, No.5 (2007): 171-78. 03 Mar. 2017. “Tokyo 2020 engages all of Japan in medal initiative.” International Olympic Committee. N.p., 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. “Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Plan Version 1.” The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Tokyo 2020. N.p., 30 Jan. 2017. PDF. 26 Feb. 2017. “Tokyo Olympic medals to be made from e-waste.” Nikkei Asian Review. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. Torihara, Kenta, Tomoaki Kitajima, Nozomu Mishima. “Design of a Proper Recycling Process for Small-sized E-waste.” Procedia CIRP, Vol. 26, (2015): 746-751. 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

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

Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities Workshop Forum + Workshop

IdeasXChange’s first 2016 workshop was constructed upon the words “resilient”, “sustainable” and “community”, presenting the importance of knowledge translation through collaborative learning and productive conversations.

The ‘Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities’ workshop on February 11th was facilitated by three graduate students from the UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning: Maria Trujillo, Aaron Lau and Emmy Ann Lee. It initiated an innovative and engaging conversation with the panelists and knowledge experts of the night: Ross Moster, Ericka Stephens-Rennie and Elvy del Bianco.

The main discussions of the night surrounded the questions of how “healthy communities promoting a sense of belonging, collaboration and happiness” can be created. The workshop provided a chance for students, alumni and Vancouverites to picture and plan out their perfect community, as well as the opportunity to learn from the panelists about the different community consolidating resources around Vancouver.

Constructing “connected and sociable communities” was discussed as the core step to building a better world, and the panelists of the night kindly shared their knowledge and passion in their respective community building efforts at the workshop.

The panelists and knowledge experts shared their achievements and passion for sustainable community building, consolidation and engagement with the workshop participants.

Founder and President of ‘Village Vancouver’ Ross Moster, is a committed member of ‘Car-free Vancouver’ and Vancouver’s food policy council – he had accumulated extensive efforts in areas such as food security, as well as collaborative neighbourhood villages and food growing networks.

Moster highlighted the importance of “connecting neighbours and community” to allow the exposure and exchanging of resources – generating a more sustainable and connected community at the local level.

Ericka Stephens-Rennie, spokesperson and resident with ‘Vancouver Co-housing,’ the first co-housing project in Vancouver scheduled to be unveiled in 2016, is passionate about inclusive “community-driven housing solutions,” which allows an effective perspective in sustainable, green multi-cohousing.

The multigenerational ‘Co-housing Vancouver’ project holds 31 units and fosters the physical environment for “meaningful connection and relationships”, as well as “authentic expression” and “a sense of safety and belonging” that can be generated through increased interactions between the residents.

Elvy del Bianco, program manager for cooperative partnerships at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, discussed the technicality and mechanics of resilient community building. His experience as a policy analyst for various government projects provided a look into the local community development. Del Bianco’s efforts place focus upon cooperatives and networks that can effectively share expertise and forge powerful connections based on purpose-oriented cooperative models.

As the workshop and discussion began, participants were divided into the respective regions of the city: UBC, West Vancouver area and East Vancouver area. A printed map of each region was distributed at the beginning of the workshop, as well as pieces of coloured cards with various keywords to initiate group dialogue.

Participants residing in the same region then discussed among each other about the common facilities and infrastructures that they would like to build in their region, and then mapped them out on the printed map. This activity emphasized change and community building that can be done at the local level – it encourages the sharing and inputting of innovative ideas that can improve the respective regions and communities.

All participants were able to share and express creative ideas on improving the respective regions. They discussed extensively on sustainable or eco-friendly methods to engage local residents to better utilize communal spaces, as well as the resources and spaces where members of these local communities can engage and interact with one another.

Corporate Social Responsibility Panel + Workshop

Note: From January until June 2015, our events were promoted under “Values in Perspective”. We have since changed our name to IdeasXChange.

Is it possible for a company to add value to society and still make profits without harming the environment?

Is it enough to let governments and NGOs take care of the environmental and social issues prevalent in the world today and let businesses escape corporate responsibility?

And if it isn’t, to what extent should businesses and people be held responsible for the damage they cause?

On March 24, 2015, IdeasXChange engaged 30 UBC students and faculty, practitioners and community members in a panel and discussion on corporate social responsibility.

Western Canadian Anchor at Purpose Capital Christie Stephenson; and Robert Crawford, UBC professor and chair of Multinational Corporations course, were both panelists at the workshop. Participants gathered for case studies and a discussion after the panel.

Attendees working together to solve a case study involving a socially responsible firm.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility?

Milton Friedman, an American economist famously stated, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business — to increase its profits so long as it engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” However, the business landscape is changing, and more and more people are considering the social responsibility of business to incorporate far more than responsibility to shareholders and maximising profits.

At the very heart of Corporate Social Responsibility is the triple bottom line- the notion that businesses should consider all three economic, environmental and social impacts of their actions. These three pillars are often abbreviated as the 3 Ps- People, Planet, and Profit, and a firm with a strong CSR mission would incorporate all these into their values, culture, decision making, strategy and operations. These increases businesses’ responsibilities to consider other community stakeholders, like the responsibility to provide clean air for residents and hence to reduce carbon emissions.

There are many components of CSR, and improving social and environmental conditions could range from addressing the supply chain (looking at more ethical ways of sourcing materials, finding better ways to dispose waste) to human resources (improving the company culture, providing health benefits that increase wellbeing for employees and their families).

Stephenson, talked about her experience with social impact from a financial perspective, and described the components of Impact Investing– investments made to generate social or environmental impact while not compromising the financial return. She also talked about metrics and ways to measure these impacts. One of the better known metrics are called ESG-Environmental, Social and Governance metrics.

Although CSR does have its credits, it also has its shortcomings. Professor Crawford, was able to touch on some of the bigger picture issues surrounding CSR, such as the potential for Greenwashing– when a firm advertises itself as an advocate for CSR but does so purely for profit purposes and doesn’t attempt to incorporate it into its operations and firm mission, and the lack of incentives for Multinational Corporations to monitor its behaviour.

Panel Members:

Christie Stephenson: Western Canada, Purpose Capital. She has spent the past 15 years involved in impact investing and social enterprise as an investor, board member, mentor, and through her work in the socially responsible investing field. She spent 14 years at Canada’s leading socially responsible investing firms Sustainalytics and NEI Investments, where she managed the environmental, social and governance evaluations program. She has also served on the boards of numerous social enterprises.

Robert Crawford: UBC Professor and Arts One Program Chair. Professor at UBC since 1995, focusing on international relations, political philosophy, and international political economy. His Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and States in the Modern Era course evaluates the perceived benefits and costs of foreign direct investment in select countries, regions, and industries, while analyzing the effectiveness or desirability of various attempts to control, limit, and regulate MNC behaviour. He has taught at SFU, UVIC, published two books on international relations, and is the UBC Arts One Program Chair.

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Ecological Economics Panel Discussion + Workshop

Note: From January until June 2015, our events were promoted under “Values in Perspective”. We have since changed our name to IdeasXChange.

March 17, 2015: Over 50 participants – ranging from UBC students and faculty, practitioners and community members joined some of Vancouver’s most known ecological economists for a discussion on how to move towards more sustainable models to drive the economy.

As the discussion around the environment increases, some economists and scholars are challenging the very foundations of economic models created to distribute resources. They are doing this through a new discipline called ecological economics.

After the panel discussion, a participant shares how to move towards a more sustainable economic model

What is Ecological Economics?

Ecological economics aims to improve and expand economic theory – the distribution of resources in an efficient way – to include the earth’s natural systems, human values and human well-being. These are factors that some say are often times excluded from traditional economic models. Most economists refer to these costs as “externalities.” Ecological economists want to change that model.

The concept of ecological economics encompasses topics including, but not limited to:

Interdisciplinary thinking – the environment (e.g. earth, biosphere), social issues (e.g. poverty, inequality), time (e.g. long term impact of human activities) and sustainable development all form part of ecological economics. It is a model that challenges the focus on human-made capital (money).

Planetary boundaries – economies should respect biophysical limits. Economic growth is not sustainable because the Earth and its resources has limits.

Sustainability – ecological economists generally reject that all natural capital (e.g. water, arable land, species) can be substituted or purchased by human-made capital. There is a focus to preserve and protect resources instead of depleting them.

Environmental economics is not the same as ecological economics.

Environmental economics is the mainstream model that essentially puts a price on natural capital (e.g. resources). Ecological economics instead has a strong emphasis on sustainability and sees the economy as a subsystem of the environment.

Panel discussion: Moving towards a more sustainable economic model

Three of Vancouver’s most known ecological economists joined a diverse audience to address how society, individuals and policy makers can move towards more sustainable and inclusive economic models.

The panelists included:

Tom Green: Vancouver-based ecological economist with a PhD (UBC). Associate Faculty with at Royal Roads University, visiting faculty at SFU, former post doc at Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Michelle Molnar: Economist at the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF), and VP for Programs at the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE). Professor at BCIT, MA (Public Policy), MA (Philosophy); BA (Economics & Philosophy).

Michael Barkusky: BA (Honours) in Economics; MBA, and the CGA designation (since 1985). He is the Secretary-Treasurer of CANSEE. Diverse experience in a wide range of sectors as an employee and entrepreneur.

After panel introductions and a question and answer period, participants worked together through breakout sessions on how to move towards more sustainable economic models – from a local, international, policy and corporate perspective.

The debate over a “mini ice age” in 2030

Warnings of a “mini ice age” have circulated the media. The news came after researcher Valentina Zharkova, a professor of mathematics at Northumbria University in England, looked further into variations in solar radiations predicting a significant drop of 60% in solar activity between 2030 and 2040.

It was first noticed by scientists about 170 years ago that the Sun’s activity varies over a cycle lasting around 10 to 12 years. Cycles do vary, but researches have yet to create a model that fully explains these fluctuations.

“The waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun. Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that out predictions showed an accuracy of 97%,” said Zharkova in a statement.

During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030 to 2040, the two waves will become out of sync – causing a significant reduction in solar activity.

Image: Yohkoh/ISAS/Lockheed-Martin/NAOJ/U. Tokyo/NASA.

“When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is a full phase separation, we have conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago,” explains Zharkova.

The Maunder minimum was a period in the 1600’s and early 1700’s of the “Little Ice Age” – a period that coincided with Europe and North America experiencing cooler than average temperatures.

Professor at the University of British Columbia Dr. John Innes, doesn’t think we should be jumping to any conclusions, “the direct link between the minimum in sunspot activity and the temperature cooling is not quite so definite.”

Innes explains in an email statement that there may have been other factors at work during the Maunder minimum, such as increased volcanic activity, which would have generated ash that reduced the amount of energy reaching the Earth’s surface.

“They are virtually all based on models, and models are often wrong …  the idea is interesting, and worth looking at more carefully,” says Innes.

Indian airport becomes the first to run entirely on solar energy

India’s Cochin International Airport has become the first in the world to be powered solely on solar energy.

Creating the “absolutely power neutral” airport will be 40,000 solar panels laid across 45 acres – producing 50,000 to 60,000 units of electricity per day to be used for all its operational functions.

The green initiative will avoid carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years, having an impact equivalent of planning three million trees.

“When we had realized that the power bill is on the higher side, we contemplated possibilities. Then the idea of tapping the green power came in,” says V.J. Kurian, Managing Director of Cochin International Airport in a press release.

The airport started using solar panels back in 2013 when it installed them on the Arrival Terminal block. The project expanded and eventually plans were agreed for the giant solar patch to be created.

“We consume around 48,000 unit (KWh) a day,” Kurian explains. “So if we can produce the same, that too by strictly adhering to the green and sustainable development model of infrastructure development that we always follow, that would transcend a message to the world. Now this has become the world’s first airport fully operates on solar power.”

UBC named top sustainable university in Canada

UBC achieved a score in the top 10 universities rated under the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System – a self-reporting system developed by the AASHE. Among universities with over 30,000 students, UBC came in second place.

This is the second consecutive Gold rating UBC has received from the ASSHE.

“This recognition is further proof of our commitment to leadership in global sustainability through groundbreaking research, education and innovative projects on campus,” said Martha Piper, interim president of UBC in a statement.

UBC launched Canada’s first sustainability office in 1997 and has received the maximum “innovation credits” for its initiatives, which include: a 20-year sustainability strategy, behavioural research in support of creating a zero-waste campus, UBC Farm’s Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, and energy system upgrades to reduce UBC’s thermal energy use and GHG emissions.

Image: UBC Public Affairs

“STARS provides a robust platform to measure our sustainability progress over time, assess gaps and opportunities to improve sustainability performance, and receive external recognition for sustainability efforts across campus,” said Associate Vice-President of Campus and Community Planning in a statement, Michael White.

UBC also offers over 600 sustainability related courses and over 40 sustainability-related programs.

The university remains on track to reach the green house gas emission reduction targets established in 2010 with the Vancouver Campus Climate Action Plan – planning to reduce emissions 33 per cent by 2015 and 100 per cent by 2050.