Your old cell phone could become the medals for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Rio 2016 Judo bronze medallist Ryunosuke Haga in support of the medal project. (Courtesy of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee)

By Cyan Zhong
Medill Reports

If you live in Japan, you might have a chance to see top athletes all over the world wear your old phones on their necks next summer.

Well, not quite, but close. The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has been collecting used electronics all over Japan, including old cellphones and home appliances. The plan is to extract the metal and make – you guessed it – Olympic medals.

A Japanese factory is melting the electronics to extract the metal within. (Ⓒ Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo).

“The Medal Project,” as the committee calls it, is a big part of sustainability innovations ahead of the games. Kicked off in April 2017, the project is now near the finish line – March marks the last month of collection, said Tatsuo Ogura, senior manager of international communications for the committee.

“When we started this project in 2017, we expected it to finish in two years,” Ogura said. “We are on the right track and we almost met with the goal.”

The committee fulfilled the 2,700-kilogram goal of bronze collection last June. In October, it met 93.7 percent of the target for salvaging gold and 85.4 percent for silver, Ogura said.

A total of 1,500 municipalities across Japan are involved in the medal project, and they put the signature yellow donation boxes at post offices or street corners for citizens to donate their used devices, Ogura said. They can also donate at 2,400 NTT DOCOMO stores nationwide, Japan’s predominant mobile phone operator.

“We believe that, by supporting schemes like the medal project which encourage participation by the public, we can draw attention to the importance of recycling and help realize an environmentally friendly and sustainable society,” a NTT Docomo representative said in an email.  

The yellow donation box allows people all over Japan to donate their used electronic devices. Many athletes are on board with the project and signed their names to back the cause. (Cyan Zhong/Medill Reports)

NTT Docomo began recycling used mobile phones in 1998. The company is dedicated to “urban mining,” the process of “reclaiming raw materials from used products, buildings and waste,” according to SINTEF, a European independent research organization.

Surging demands for electronic devices each year indicate huge market potential in urban mining. The annual production of electronic goods in the world required “320 tons of gold and over 7,500 tons of silver, with a combined value of $21 billion dollars,” from which only 15 percent is recovered, according to a study by the Solving the E-waste Problem initiative (StEP).

As part of its contribution to the Medal Project, NTT Docomo also runs educational workshops to teach school children about the precious mineral resources in mobile phones and other consumer electronics, the representative said in the email.

Over the span of the project, Japanese municipalities received approximately 47,488 tons of used electronic devices and 5.07 million used mobile phones. People need to be informed on how many resources they have just within their homes, Ogura said.

The old phones collected will be dismantled and metals extracted. (Courtesy of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee)

Promoting an environmentally friendly and sustainable society is deeply connected to Tokyo’s vision for the  2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. “Sports has the power to change the world and our future,” Ogura said, and the international sporting event is a great opportunity to send a message to the world.

“We tried to show our stance to the vision and it is really important to leave that intangible legacy to Japanese society and also to the world, especially for the younger generation,” Ogura said.

The purpose behind this project is twofold, he said. Following the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations, the Tokyo Olympics committee is dedicated to achieve zero waste through recycling, but it also wants to engage and excite the public ahead of the games.

The committee almost reached its target for gold extraction. (ⒸTanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo)

People usually start engaging when volunteer applications open or ticket sales start, Ogura said, but the medal project gave them an early opportunity to take part in the quadrennial event.

“Tokyo won the bid in September 2013. At that moment, Japanese people are really enthusiastic about hosting the games, but it’s a long way,” Ogura said. “We obviously need to retain the enthusiasm and excitement.”

Photo at top: Rio 2016 Judo bronze medallist Ryunosuke Haga in support of the medal project. (Courtesy of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee)

Timeline of the Medal Project