Tokyo is due to host the 2020 Olympic Games. There's a chance that the gold medals awarded there will be made from recycled electronic waste.

Recouping resources from electronics isn't a new concept. Companies around the world are beginning to pay more attention to the value of materials thrown away as e-waste. Some are seeking to source rare earth metals from hard drives while others are recycling metals from broken products they gather from consumers.

But Japan may be taking e-waste recycling to the global stage. When the Olympic Games are hosted in Tokyo in 2020, the gold medals may just be sourced from electronics.

 

The Problem of Electronic Waste

The electronics industry produces up to 42 million tons of waste annually, which is becoming a problem with precious metals such as gold and palladium becoming increasingly rare and expensive.

It is also believed that up to 90% of the world’s electronics waste (worth $19 billion), is dumped and traded illegally. This dumping of e-waste has cost $52 billion to the global economy. Furthermore, practices such as planned obsolescence do not help with reduction of waste if a phone or computer becomes outdated in just a few years.

Unfortunately, even well-intentioned e-waste recycling is often misleading—it turns out that literal tons of "recycled" electronics end up in landfills anyway. For a visual guide to the e-waste problem, check out the MoniTour project from MIT's Senseable City Lab and BAN.

 

E-waste is becoming an increasing concern for the environment. Image courtesy of the City of Monroe.

 

 

Medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

Tokyo is due to host the 2020 Olympic Games and organizers have made plans to produce the gold and silver medals from e-waste. It is believed that e-waste in Japan alone makes up to 16% of the current gold reserve. This is a compelling incentive for sustainable metal sourcing.

 

 

  London 2012  

  E-Waste in Japan (2014)  

  Gold

  9.6 kg

  143 kg

  Silver

  1,210 kg

  1,566 kg

  Copper (Bronze)  

  700kg

  1,112kg

Table showing the needed amount of metals for the 2012 Olympics compared to the recovered materials in Japan from e-waste. Data courtesy of QZ.

 

This table from QZ.com shows that the amount of metals needed to make the medals for the Olympic games could easily be met using recycled e-waste from Japan. This is not the first time Japan has made efforts to recycle e-waste.

In 2009, Japan created new legislation that made it mandatory to recycle home electronics. Each personal computer, mobile phone, and TV must be recycled, as well as appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators, and washing machines.

 

Sgt. Vincent Hancock and his second gold Olympic medal in 2012. Image courtesy of the U.S. Army [CC BY 2.0]

 

The importance of such a move is not just in preventing further gold and silver extraction from the earth (a process which can have dire environmental repercussions) but to make a statement about electronics and its interaction with the environment.

Electronic waste does not degrade like biological waste (food, grass cuttings, etc.), which causes many issues with the environment. For example, there are electronics that still contain poisonous metals (such as silver salts), which can contaminate ground water and further pollute oceans.

Elements such as mercury and lead are also still used in modern electronics and can cause environmental problems. Long-lived fish such as tuna have been shown to contain high levels of heavy metals.

It's clear that recycling these electronics is an important step towards protecting the environment. But the act of recycling, itself, can also present environmental problems. 

 

Eco-Friendly E-Waste Recycling

Extracting gold from electronics may ultimately have a net positive effect but the recycling process is no simple matter. Unfortunately, recycling gold from electronics usually requires toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide.

But a team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh has developed a method for gold extraction without the use of toxic chemicals. Their method involves using a mildly acidic solution to dissolve all the metal in the electronic waste and then adding an oily liquid so that only the gold is extracted. Such a process may allow extraction of precious metals without the use of toxic chemicals.

This is a step that could help metals recycling become mainstream without risking further harm to the environment.


Japan's plans to use metals recovered from e-waste is not set in stone—but it is truly a golden idea.

With any technology, it takes investors and development to help bring the price down, so this move by Japan could support efforts to recycle precious metals in the future.

 

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