2020 Olympic Medals Made From Electronic Waste

2020 Olympic Medals Are Made From Electronic Waste 

Have you gotten a brand new laptop or smartphone recently? If so, congratulations — and you're not alone. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of American adults own a cell phone, and 81% own a smartphone. Average consumers replace their phones every two to three years.

Many people don't know what to do with their small electronic devices once they no longer need them. Throw them away? That's not an option for people who strive to live in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. In several locations, it is even illegal. Keep them around? Letting old phones pile up in the closet doesn't improve your feng shui — and there are still all those useful materials inside the devices that could be beneficial in other applications.

The question is not just an intellectual one — it has a meaningful impact on the health and wellness of the planet and its inhabitants. Reselling smartphones is great for the environment, but it can be hard to know how to start.

Now imagine for a moment that you're an elite competitive swimmer. You've put in years of hard work and sacrifice to achieve your dream of racing in the Olympics. At your first Olympic race, you plunge into the pool and slice through the water like a torpedo. Your body cries out for rest, but you power onward with more strength than you've ever had before. Your heart pounds, and your arms churn. The laps whirl by. At last, you touch the final wall, tear off your goggles and look up at the scoreboard as you gasp for breath. The crowd screams and roars. You raise your fists in triumph. It's over. You did it. All your struggles are finally worth it. You're an Olympic medalist.

Standing on the medal podium, listening to your country's national anthem fill the aquatic center and feeling the heft of your medal pressing into your chest will be one of the best memories of your life. But what if that tremendous moment could be even a little bit sweeter? What if you knew that your hard-won Olympic medal was helping to make the world a cleaner and less wasteful place? 

Medals Made From Recycled Electronic Waste

Collection and Harvesting

Public Participation and Support

An Innovative and Forward-Looking Solution

Medals Made From Recycled Electronic Waste

To promote recycling and sustainability, the organizing committee for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games took the novel step of creating an electronics collection campaign. The committee's medal project gathered used cell phones, tablets, cameras and other small electronic devices from all over Japan for use in crafting the 2020 Olympic medals.

1. Collection and Harvesting

The collection process took place across two years, beginning in the spring of 2017 and concluding in the spring of 2019. During that time, the designated collection centers gathered an amazing amount of electronic waste (e-waste) — almost 79,000 tons, including 6.21 million used mobile phones.

The committee's stated target goals for metals collected included 30.3 kilograms of gold, 4,100 kilograms of silver and 2,700 kilograms of bronze. The collection campaign met the bronze target first, ahead of schedule, collecting 2,700 kilograms of bronze by June 2018. The remaining amount of metal collected in total included 32 kilograms of gold and 3,500 kilograms of silver. Most Olympic gold medals are actually silver plated in a small amount of gold because of gold's high cost. It costs about $600 to make one silver medal plated with gold — but a completely gold medal would cost $23,500.

Workers extracted metals from these devices and collected them for casting. Afterward, the project sent the used electronics to contractors. These smelting contractors dismantled the electronics and extracted the gold, silver and bronze medals to be used in the medal-crafting process. Workers refined the extractions, removing impurities until only pure gold, silver and bronze remained. Later, a special team will craft the Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals out of the metal harvested from the discarded electronic devices.

The harvested metals will contribute exclusively to the 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals awarded at the Tokyo Olympic Games — that's every single medal earned at the Olympics and Paralympics.

2. Public Participation and Support

The project allowed the Japanese public to play a major role in the preparations for the 2020 Games. The collection campaign enjoyed huge levels of support from the public and participating organizations — over 90% of the cities, towns and villages in Japan participated in the project. In April 2017, only 624 were participating. By the end of the project, that number had leaped to 1,621 of the 1,741 municipalities in the country. That enormous number represents an amazing level of support and participation for an experimental project.

Many athletes, university students and members of the public participated in collection initiatives to increase the number of electronics donated. Additionally, about 2,400 stores belonging to NTT Docomo, the leading Japanese mobile phone company, acted as collection locations, along with the participating cities and towns.

In October 2018, NTT Docomo participated in a formal First Metal Delivery Ceremony, an event that paralleled the medal ceremonies of Olympic Games. At that event, the company delivered four tons of materials to the Tokyo Organizing Committee for use in the crafting of the medals, with the promise of more to come.

As part of its outreach campaign, the committee also invited members of the public to submit original ideas for the design of the medals. As of this writing, the committee has narrowed the proposed designs down to three finalists for the Olympic medal design and three finalists for the Paralympic medal design.

3. An Innovative and Forward-Looking Solution

The Tokyo Olympics are the first Olympic Games to set and reach this goal. The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, used a small amount of recycled metal, about 30%, in its silver and bronze medals. However, Tokyo's will be the first Games to make the medals from recycled electronic materials.

By using materials from recycled electronic waste in its medals, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics promote sustainability and provide a highly visible platform to raise awareness of recycling efforts around the globe.

Benefits of Recycling Electronic Waste

There are several benefits to recycling electronic waste. Here are a few of them:

1. Environmental Impact

Of course, the main advantage of recycling electronic waste is that doing so is environmentally friendly. The average American household uses a whopping 28 small electronic items like cell phones, televisions and more. Recycling these items has great benefits for the environment in terms of reduced pollution and electricity use.

Recycling one million laptops, for example, saves an amount of energy that equals the amount used by 3,657 homes in the United States in one year. And 1,000 kilograms of recycled computer circuit boards provides 40 to 800 times the gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined in the United States from the same mass of ore. That's a tremendous increase in value for much less labor and pollution. Mining uses a lot of energy and pumps an enormous quantity of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Recycling reduces our demand for mining and leads to energy reduction and cleaner air to breathe.

2. Increased Access to Electronics

Mining used electronics for precious metals to fashion Olympic medals isn't the only use for our electronic waste, of course. We don't have to strip all our electronics for their metals.

Mining used electronics for precious metals to fashion Olympic medals isn't the only use for our electronic waste, of course. There is no need to strip all our electronics for their metals. If your electronic device still functions, recycling is an excellent way to improve access for members of the community with fewer financial resources. These individuals may not have the resources to buy a brand-new MacBook, but a recycled laptop makes computer ownership a possibility. Owning a computer or phone improves access to educational resources, substantially boosting quality of life beyond merely providing an entertaining device.

3. Decreased Ecological and Humanitarian Footprint

When you buy recycled electronics, they will likely be designed for optimal energy efficiency and come with minimal packaging. These features help reduce the consumer's ecological impact and keep harmful plastic packaging out of landfills.

Overall, recycling electronic waste provides many benefits and illustrates a path toward creative solutions for the ecological and environmental trials our planet faces.

Process of E-Waste Recycling 

Electronic waste recycling, such as the process of turning old electronic devices into Olympic medals, requires several discrete steps, which we've broken down below.

1. Drop-Off

First, people drop off their used electronics in bins at collection centers. We recommend bringing your used and broken devices to an ecoATM kiosk. With over 4,500 convenient locations across the US, it’s easier than ever to properly sell or recycle your old devices. For all other electronics, you may visit a local recycling facility. 

2. Sorting and Breakdown

The first step at the recycling facility is to sort the items manually and check batteries to ensure they function and don't leak. Batteries will go on to specialized recycling centers, where workers will separate them into their plastic and metal components. The metals will be smelted and used for more batteries.

At the recycling facility, workers then break the electronic devices down into their components and separate the plastics, metals and circuitry of the electronics. Many recycling centers have imaging systems that separate the various components by color. Some of the parts can be reused from that point, but others must undergo further recycling.

3. Shredding

After the sorting process is complete, the remaining materials must be shredded and broken down, first into small rough chunks that you could hold in your fingers. Once workers have shredded the devices into small, manageable pieces, they spread those pieces out on a conveyer belt to be broken down further into minuscule particles.

4. Separation Processes

Next, recycling centers use powerful magnets to draw out the steel, iron and other metals from the rest of the material. These metals can either be sold as-is or used in manufacturing. After removing the iron and steel, the recycling center separates other softer metals like copper, along with the electronic circuitry. The center then sends the circuitry to specialized processing facilities that will extract and refine its metals.

After the separation of the metals, the electronic waste material left over is primarily plastic. The recycling plant uses a water-based separation process to separate glass particles from the plastic particles. It then ships the plastic particles to plastic recyclers to be reused in items such as plastic water bottles and construction components.

The glass particles in electronic waste come primarily from the internal components of television screens and computer monitors. Their removal requires a more complicated process because the glass intertwines with hazardous materials like lead. The glass recycling process uses magnets to remove metals effectively. It requires carefully separating dust to make sure workers do not breathe in toxic fumes.

When the plastic and glass separation procedures conclude, workers at the center sift through the leftover particles once more, often by hand, for one last batch of meticulous sorting and quality control.

5. Sales and Smelting

Once all the separation processes are complete and the materials reduced to their purest forms, the center sells the raw materials it has collected. After the sale, more specialized processing centers can smelt materials like metal and use them in the production of new devices.

Think of E-Waste During the 2020 Olympics

Our phones are deeply integral parts of our lives. We use them to communicate with friends and family, interact with the world, educate ourselves, make travel plans and broaden our horizons. If you've ever searched the internet for parenting advice or used your phone to plan a vacation you'll never forget, you know that our hopes, dreams and ideas about ourselves are bound up in our phones.
At the Tokyo Olympic Games, those excruciatingly human hopes and dreams are meeting the world stage. When we watch on TV, we see our dreams reflected to us as athletes of all pursuits strive for greatness on the track, in the pool, and hovering over a balance beam. Not to be overlooked, little pieces of those dreams will also reflect at us in the medals those athletes wear, along with the promise of more sustainable living and a cleaner, greener future.

Recycle or Sell Your Old Electronic Devices With ecoATM

Recycle Your Old Electronic Devices With ecoATM

Though ecoATM may not fashion Olympic medals, we certainly take the gold in e-recycling!

If you’re looking to sell or recycle your used electronic devices, consider an ecoATM kiosk. Over the two decades we've been in operation, we have collected 37 million electronic devices. You can join the fight against e-waste with a quick to your local ecoATM kiosk.

By selling your old smartphones and other devices at one of our convenient kiosks, you can keep harmful plastics and toxins out of landfills, provide useful metals for commercial and industrial applications, and get some bonus cash all at the same time. Find a kiosk near you today, or contact us with any questions.