The Japanese are aiming to make the 2020 Olympic Games truly memorable by awarding winners with medals made from e-waste.
The Tokyo organising committee has already set up a goal of producing 5,000 medals with gold, silver and bronze retrieved from electronic waste.
According to BBC Future, e-waste – battery and plug included – is the fastest growing part of the world’s domestic waste stream.
And despite being toxic, it is regarded by many to be an ‘urban gold mine’ as electronics contain profitable metals waiting to be retrieved.
Seeing this as an opportunity, the Tokyo 2020 organising committee invited citizens to donate their mobiles and other gadgets.
In little more than a year, the organisers were able to retrieve 16.5 kg of gold (54.5% of the 30.3kg target) and 1,800 kg of silver (43.9% of the targeted amount of 4,100kg).
According to the committee, the target for bronze – 2,700 kg – has already been reached.
As per a UN report, the world generated 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste in 2016, a figure that grows between 3 and 4% yearly.
If you were to load all that waste into 18-wheel 40-tonne trucks, you could fill around 1.23 million of them, enough to pack a two-lane street between Paris and Singapore!
By 2021, that figure could be more than 52 million tonnes.
According to the UN, only 20% of discarded electronics is recycled; the rest is either dumped in landfills, passed along country lines to be reused or forgotten in our drawers.
This is not only foolish from an ecological standpoint – toxic materials found in electronics pollute our soil and water if they are not treated properly, but also a missed chance for countries with few mines of their own.
At the most, you could get three or four grams of gold for each tonne of ore extracted from a mine.
On the other hand, one tonne of mobile phones easily provides up to 350 gms of gold. This not only deals with the e-waste, but it also means less metal extraction from mines.
The 2020 Olympics won’t be the first to award medals made from recycled materials.
Almost 30% of the silver used for Rio 2016 came from leftover mirrors, waste solders and X-ray plates. And 40% of their copper used for the bronze medals, came from mint waste.
According to BBC Future, Tokyo’s effort is indeed unique in two ways: First, it aims to get 100% of the metals from recycled material; and secondly, it accepts e-waste only from Japanese households.
As of June 2018, telecom shops in Japan have collected 4.32 million used mobile phones donated by the public, while municipal authorities received around 34,000 tonnes of small electronic devices.
Christophe Simon-AFP/-Getty Images/Diego Arguedas Ortiz-BBC Future