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In a sporting first, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Tokyo 2020) is creating medals from recycled home and personal electronics and appliances. Dubbed the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project, the initiative calls on the public and others to join forces and gather small waste electronic equipment (SWEE) for recycling into gold, silver, and bronze medals.

SWEE resources are part of what experts call “urban mines”—metal resources circulating in society as components of appliances and devices.

Such “mines” are embedded in smartphones, televisions, cameras, computers, and other devices, and are ripe for reuse—even to hang around the necks of athletes at the Games.

Speaking to The Journal, representatives from the Ministry of Environment (MOE), Tokyo 2020, the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), and an expert on rare-earth metals said the project will enhance Tokyo 2020’s legacy and inspire public awareness of recycling.

They note that, beyond the Olympics, if the supply of mineral resources is outstripped by demand—as is predicted to happen due to increased production of resource-rich products—resource-poor nations such as Japan may not be able to meet future mineral needs.

It is their hope that urban mines will offer an untapped, alternative source of metals. These metals, in turn, can be given a second life in new products.

The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project began more than three years ago. But as Toru Sugio, Director of Protocol at Tokyo 2020, told The Journal, “At first, we didn’t really have the intention to use recycled metals, because we thought it would be an expensive and complicated procedure.”

That changed when the academic community and local governments proposed their ideas.

“Following the recommendations of several expert commissions, we eventually decided to go ahead with the project.”

The initiative is in line with legislation dating back to 1998, when the Law on Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances was enacted. The rules came into full force in April 2001.

As MOE Deputy Director Toru Terai explained, the SWEE-related Act on Promotion of Recycling of Small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment—which was enacted on August 10, 2012, and went into effect April 1, 2013—aims to enhance efforts for recycling small electronics devices.

“If we are successful, we expect to collect all the materials needed for the Games within two years.”

Sugio agrees. “While we think this project will be challenging, we believe it will be a great example of innovation by the Tokyo Games.”

As of February, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had collected more than 40,000 items from the public at their building alone, he pointed out.

The program to draw in public participation kicked off in April, and early support has been strong. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked 120 guests at a British Chamber of Commerce in Japan event held on April 6 to donate their old cell phones.

And at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on July 18, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told The Journal that, so far, they have collected about 500,000 cell phones through all partner channels.

“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.”

Muto is confident that Tokyo 2020 will be able to make the gold, silver, and bronze medals from metal recycled from Japan’s urban mines. “If the project succeeds,” he said, “our dreams would come true, because this will be the first Olympic Games that makes all the medals from recycled materials.”

The collection process will continue into 2019.

The IOC‘s Kirsty Coventry donates her phone on April 1.

While the recycling project may appear remote from the public’s day-to-day experiences, those behind the initiative say members of the community can already make important contributions.

“If you have a cell phone, for example, and want to donate it for recycling, you can drop it off at NTT Docomo or visit your local ward office,” Sugio said.

Collection boxes are also available in city halls and public facilities such as municipal libraries, where drop-offs can be made for cell phones, calculators, hair dryers, laptops, portable navigation systems, digital cameras, and other devices.

The kinds of material that can be collected may vary depending on location. Tokyo’s Minato Ward, for instance, only accepts nine types of devices.

“While the law defines up to 40 kinds of goods that can be recycled, it is really up to local authorities—depending on their capacities—to determine which ones they can actually collect,” Sugio explained.

A consortium of five entities—Tokyo 2020, MOE, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, NTT Docomo, Inc., and the Japan Environmental Sanitation Center (JESC)—has been tasked with managing various aspects of the project.

MOE oversees waste management coordination, including the gathering of SWEE materials for recycling, explained Terai.

As defined by the SWEE law, government, municipalities, manufacturers, retailers, and certified recycling operators also play a role.

The government is to provide funding, promote research and development, conduct surveys, and support education and public relations activities for recycling.

Municipalities are to engage in salvaging and sorting waste in partnership with affiliates of JESC, an MOE-backed entity engaged in non-profit activities concerning waste management. JESC partners with recycling operators.

Manufacturers, meanwhile, have a responsibility to reduce costs by improving design and parts. They are also required to use recycled materials.

In addition, retailers such as telecommunication companies and suppliers of electronics devices should work with consumers to ensure that goods are appropriately discarded.

“We have five main organizations and more than 900 regional and local partners spread all over the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, who have already joined the project,” Tokyo 2020’s Sugio said.

Source: Board of directors of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will not be the first to create medals from recycled products. At the Rio Games, for instance, the silver medals were made of 30 percent recycled materials, obtained from sources such as car parts, X-ray plates, and mirrors. That said, Tokyo will be the first host city to make the most of urban mines for such purposes, and to craft gold, silver, and bronze medals entirely from recycled material.

An early advocate of urban mines was Kohmei Halada, an advisor at the National Institute for Materials Sciences (NIMS), a public research institute headquartered in Ibaraki Prefecture. The institute has developed new technology for urban mining.

When he was a researcher at NIMS in 2008, Halada calculated the amount of recyclable metal—gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, zinc, lead, aluminum, nickel, antimony, cobalt, indium, and lithium—that can be found in Japan’s urban mines.

He determined that the amount held in the country’s urban mines is about the same as the reserves held by some of the world’s most resource-rich countries.

As reported at the time by the non-profit group Japan for Sustainability (JFS), the “amount of gold stockpiled in Japan is about 6,800 tons, which accounts for 16 percent of the world’s current reserves of 42,000 tons.

“Its silver stocks amount to about 60,000 tons, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s stocks.” JFS tracks and shares information about the sustainability ecosystem.

Speaking to The Journal, Halada said that the resources stored in urban mines “are greater than the metal reserves of countries which have natural resources. And this is not only the case in Japan, it applies globally, because the total amount of reserves of metals in the world today is less than the total amount that is already being used in our products.”

It is easier to tap urban mines than natural reserves buried underground, he added. Indeed, as proof of concept, Halada and NIMS created a gold medal based on material recycled from urban mines.

Halada and members of the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project are not the only ones talking about urban mines and better sustainability strategies for resource-poor countries such as Japan.

“Resource dependency is something that has always been a concern for Japan. Where they can become a little more innovative than other countries is in their companies themselves,” said David Abraham.

Abraham is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington DC. He is also the author of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.

One path to innovation is for companies to identify how they use resources at end of life, or how they can come up with better ways to design products, make parts interchangeable, or prolong the lives of products.

For Abraham, there is a massive transformation of resources that is affecting the modern lifestyle.

“A smartphone, computer, or any high-tech device relies on dysprosium that comes from China, cobalt that comes from Congo, lithium that comes from Chile—you can just go down the list of elements.”

High-tech products such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone, which Abraham identifies as a main cause for the shift to resource-intensive design, have roots that go deep into the ground, tapping rare metals. And while these resources exist in small quantities in such devices, they have already been harvested by the time they get into circulation as part of consumer goods.

The question then is, according to Abraham: How can we harvest them again when they are in circulation? How can we make them into new products?

For Abraham and Halada, industrial recycling—which makes heady use of gold, silver, and copper—is one area in Japan where efforts to dig urban mines and recycle their resources are ahead of the curve.

“Imagine, for instance, that a magnet manufacturer gets their magnets in a block that they curve into a circle. They are able to recycle all of that excess waste that falls onto the floor.”

This type of post-industrial recycling of known quantities is easier and faster to do compared with recycling of resources that have entered general circulation in products.

“The question is: How easy is it to recycle those materials because of the diversity of products that are out there, and the specificity of the materials in each one of them?”

Companies must become more aware of the materials that are going into their products and how to recover them, Halada and Abraham agreed.

That said, change is already on its way. Halada and NIMS have developed 3D printer technology for producing small-scale medals sourced from urban mines.

Cities such as Kyoto and Kitakyushu have awarded gold and silver medals created from urban mines to the top finishers of their local events, such as marathons.

And, if recent crowd sizes at Tokyo 2020 awareness-raising events are an indication, the public is getting behind the recycling project and endorsing a future in which sustainable sourcing of mineral resources is more common than before.

As the MOE’s Terai noted, 40,000 people attended this summer’s Eco Life Fair, an awareness-raising event for the recycling project held in Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo.

“We have had a very positive reaction from the general public,” Sugio from Tokyo 2020 observed. “We are receiving calls from them, with many offering to donate their mobile phones.”

While creating a waste stream and encouraging companies to reduce waste is important, more can be done—especially on a personal level, Abraham said.

“The easiest thing an individual can do is to understand the repercussions of their purchasing decisions.

“Further down the line, what we need to do as a society is to find a way to give our products a second life—whether that means recycling or giving them to someone else who can use them again.”

That said, one challenge that the contributors noted is a general lack of awareness among the public of the materials contained in everyday electronics.

“If people knew that their cellphones contained rare materials, they would be more likely to come together for the recycling efforts,” Halada suggests.

Sugio agrees, and points to awareness-raising events in Tokyo involving Japanese and non-Japanese Olympians donating their devices for the effort. “I’m giving you my phone,” one Olympian is said to have confessed at such an event. “But I expect to get it back in the form of a gold medal at the Tokyo Games.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
Tokyo will be the first host city . . . to craft gold, silver, and bronze medals entirely from recycled material.