When athletes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics collect their medals, they’ll not only be wearing something that celebrates their sporting performance, but something that symbolizes sustainability. For both the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, organizers aim to make all the gold, silver, and bronze medals out of used electronics. This strong message about how to make use of e-waste has gotten all of Japan involved, with 90% of municipal authorities taking part in the collection effort.
Starting in April 2017, the Japanese Olympic Committee began collecting old laptops, digital cameras, smartphones, and other discarded electronics. The initiative has been a big success, with authorities collecting 47,488 tons of devices as of October 2018. Already, the quantity needed for bronze medals has been met, and they are in the homestretch for silver and gold medals, meaning the collection process can wrap up by the end of March.
When looking just at the number of cell phones collected, the amount of waste is striking. In a period of about 18 months, a little over 5 million smartphones were collected thanks to a collaboration with NTT DOCOMO. Japan’s largest mobile phone operator allowed the public to turn in phones at their shops, which was critical in the project’s success. Olympic host cities usually procure metal for medals largely by asking mining companies to donate them.
After being dismantled and sorted, the small electronics underwent a smelting process to extract all the gold, silver, and bronze elements. In order to make all the medals, 30.3 kg of gold, 4,100 kg of silver, and 2,700 kg of bronze will need to be extracted from the electronics. While silver and bronze medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics were composed of 30% recycled materials, this achievement for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a bold step forward.
Thanks to this initiative, the worldwide struggle with e-waste will have a global platform. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor—a study published by the United Nations University, International Telecommunication Union, and International Solid Waste Association—44.7 million metric tons of e-waste were generated in 2016. Only 20% of that was actually recycled. This figure is set to rise significantly in the coming years, moving to 52.2 million metric tons by 2021. So, while the Tokyo Olympics initiative might be just a drop in the bucket, it’s a good start in showing what the public can do if they’re made more aware of the issue.
The WE Project in Shanghai
Closer home in Shanghai, Green Initiatives’ WE Project has collected over 7 tons of e-waste till date, and through their recycling partner TES, they have extracted precious metals from these appliances and mobile phones, which otherwise would be discarded into the waste bin. This process of extracting precious metals from e-waste is called urban mining. Click here to read more about the WE Project.
The Electronic Waste Recycling Process
Used electronics that are disposed in the collection boxes would be picked up every few months and brought to a certified dismantling factory. Here, several materials and resources are extracted from the products: plastic, glass, epoxy, precious metals such as gold and silver, and non-precious metals such as copper. Some of these materials are used to make derivate products such as agglomerates for making benches and doors with plastic and epoxy, plastic chips, etc.
All waste water and emissions released by the factory are processed before discharge into the environment. In fact, most of the water is used in a “closed circuit”’. The toxic muds contaminated with heavy metals – a byproduct of the dismantling process, are sent to an authorized government factory to be compacted to make clay cap and then landfilled. Control over the logistics process is very strict to ensure compliance.
All companies involved in the recycling and dismantling of electronics are authorized by the government and certified according to ISO9001 and ISO14001.
Note: To dispose-off larger numbers of computers and/or electronics, for instance after upgrading an office with new devices, a separate pick-up can be arranged. While the electronic devices may no longer be of use to you, these may still be good enough and properly functioning for others.
Traditional Mining v/s Urban Mining
The process of traditional mining and extraction of minerals and ores from the earths core is not only very resource intensive, it is also quite damaging to the environment. Moreover, this practice is not sustainable since these resources are finite and are running out fast. With modern society’s current consumption appetite for new electronic gadgets, and the never-ending urge to upgrade existing devices to the latest model; this problem of scares resources is only getting more serious.
Cell phones alone contain gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, tin and zinc. To put some more numbers on it, the United States EPA states that for every 1 million cell phones recycled, we can extract 16,000 kg of copper, 350 kg of silver, 34 kg of gold and 15 kg of palladium. The same goes for all other electronic devices like keyboards, personal computers, printed circuit boards and car electronics.