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Japan recycles smartphones to make Olympic medals

Posted on 06 July 2017.

The 2020 Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo. Under the global spotlight, Japan is implementing circular economy best practices.

In 2014, 42 million metric tons of electronic waste was produced worldwide. But only a sixth was recovered, the rest was buried or burnt.

Electronic waste is an "urban mine" with respectively 16% and 22% of the world's gold and silver reserves.

These figures are all the more alarming because e-waste usually contains things such as chromium or mercury, which are toxic both for the planet and to human beings. Among the initiatives to tackle the issue, Japan announced it would recycle old smartphones to create medals for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The idea is not new. In 2016, the medals for the Rio Games had 30% recycled metals. But Japan is pushing the principle further by producing 100% recycled medals. The initiative was suggested by a committee of experts appointed by the Japanese government to establish a "Legacy Action Plan".

The plan aims to ensure that the organization of the Olympic Games leaves a positive learning legacy in areas such as education, mobility, technology, etc. Among other things, the committee’s job is to reduce the costs of the Games and give them a new sustainability focus.

An urban e-waste mine

The committee made a simple observation about the medals it would need to produce: Japan has very few mineral resources (gold, silver, bronze) but a high concentration of high-tech products all containing small amounts of these precious metals. Japanese people regularly renew their electronic devices, so on average they throw away the equivalent of 5.3 kg of metals per year per person.

A Japanese newspaper - the Nikkei Asian Review - estimates that this "urban mine" of electronic waste contains respectively 16% and 22% of the world's gold and silver reserves. So it’s just a question of going and getting the resources from the waste!

A call went out to the Japanese people in February 2017 inviting them to drop off their old smartphones, laptops, cameras and other small electronic devices. Collection bins have been installed in all the country’s major cities and in businesses and mobile phone shops. The goal is to collect the two metric tons of gold, silver and bronze needed to make the 5,000 medals for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Positive impact

In 2009 in Japan, a law was introduced making it mandatory to recycle large electronic equipment: televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, etc. Nevertheless, of the 650,000 metric tons of e-waste produced each year in the country, only 100,000 tons are recovered.

With the medal collection campaign, the goal is to raise awareness about the need to recycle electronic waste. It is also an opportunity for the government to put an efficient recovery and recycling system in place for small appliances. The main challenge of the Legacy Action Plan is to ensure that the Olympic Games has a positive impact for the country. The question is will Japan win the gold medal for electronic waste recycling in 2020?

Find out more:

- The SEB Group makes small electrical appliances with recycled plastic!