The Massive Urban Mines of Japan to Yield Olympic Medals for Tokyo 2020

japan ewaste
Japan’s Urban Mines – it’s electronic waste

It’s estimated that to make all of the gold, silver and bronze medals to provide to all the expected top three winners of all Olympic events, the manufacturer would need 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 kilograms of silver, and another 700 kilograms of copper, which is the main component of bronze.

it is the goal of the Tokyo 2020 organizers to award athletes at the 2020 Games with medals created from 100% recycled materials. Instead of resource-poor Japan buying from the reserves and mines of other countries, the nation will mine its own growing stash of hidden resources – its urban mines.

An urban mine is a metaphor for all of the electronic goods a rich society buys, consumes and throws away, which also house a collectively massive amount of precious or rare elements. By that definition, Japan is loaded, according to this research from 2009:

A considerable amount of metal was estimated to be accumulated in Japan. The accumulation amount of gold and silver is 6,800 tons and 60,000 tons respectively. They are greater than the reserves of richest resource-possessing country, South Africa for gold and Poland for silver.

To uncover the riches stored in our electronic waste, Tokyo 2020, the Japanese Government and wireless provider NTT-DoCoMo, among a variety of public-private partners, kicked off a campaign in April to collect used and unneeded smartphones, PCs, displays, digital cameras, PC displays, MP3 players, handheld video game players, or calculators.

Takeshi Matsuda donating phone for recycling at an NTT-DoCoMo outlet
Olympic swimmer Takeshi Matsuda donating phone for recycling at an NTT-DoCoMo outlet

According to Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, about 500,000 mobile phones have already been collected, which is a good start. “This is not enough to make all the medals,” he admitted, “but we still have a lot of leeway because some people outside Tokyo still are not aware of the program. There is a lack of recognition, so we have much more work to do in creating excitement and being even more creative to have wise ways to collect these metals.”

Japan can do this now because they had set up the process four years before, when the government passed The Act on Promotion of Recycling Small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The government was then able to certify 45 recycling operators nationally to receive small electric and electronic devices collected by local governments and then to sort, dismantle and send them to smelters to recover metals. According to this report from Japan for Sustainability, in the first year of this 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.

Amazing.

If you are interested in contributing to the production of the first Olympic medals molded from metals recycled from Japan’s massive urban mines, then gather those unneeded phones and small electronic devices and donate them to the cause. Take your mobile phones and tablets to your local NTT-DoCoMo store, or follow these instructions if you want to send your PC and other larger items for recycling. (Yes, this applies to people living in Japan only, and unfortunately the instructions are in Japanese only.)