Tokyo Olympics: Japanese Citizens Donated 79,000 Tons of Small Electronics to Create 5,000 Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals

Despite endless delays and postponements, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally underway. More than 11,000 athletes from 205 countries are participating in the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, competing across 50 disciplines in 33 sports. NBC Universal is producing more than 7,000 hours of Olympic coverage as athletes from around the world compete for the gold. The 2020 Olympics run from July 23 to August 8, 2021.

Limited spectators can attend due to coronavirus restrictions, but organizers are determined to allow athletes the chance to compete. Winners of these unprecedented Games will have the distinct honor of wearing a medal made from the efforts of an entire nation.

Estimated cost of hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics are on track to be the most expensive on record. In 2013, when Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics, they estimated they would spend approximately $7.3 billion. According to Wallet Hub, the cost has now ballooned to more than $26 billion. The Japanese government has invested so much money that canceling the games was not an option.

Tokyo has had the unique challenge of holding the Olympics amidst a worldwide pandemic. Japan spent approximately $900 million on coronavirus countermeasures. They also stand to lose $15 billion in estimated economic loss from banning spectators at the events.

CBS News reported, “The momentum to hold the Games is being driven, first and foremost, by the outsized payoff for the IOC. That starts with worldwide TV contracts and extends to top sponsorship deals.”

Making Olympic medals from donated electronics

Olympic foil team champion/foil individual bronze medallist Larisa Korobeinikova shows her medals
Bronze medals from the 2020 Olympics | Sergei KarpukhinTASS via Getty Images

Gold, silver, and bronze medals are synonymous with the Olympic Games. Most host cities use mining firms to get the metal needed to forge these iconic awards. Since Japan lacks its own mineral resources, they reached out to their citizens for assistance.

According to a 2017 IOC Press Release, organizers called on “the Japanese population to donate their discarded or obsolete electronic devices.” They explained the metal collected from the devices would be “used in the production of the medals for the Games.”

The initiative, called the “Tokyo 2020 Medal Project,” was a huge success. Between 2017 and 2019, yellow donation boxes were placed on street corners and post offices throughout the country. Organizers collected more than 79,000 tons of small electronics, including 6.21 million used mobile phones.

Arab News reported the medals were “forged from recycled electronics, including discarded smartphones, digital cameras, laptops, and other devices, serving as a direct response to the world’s fastest-growing solid-waste streams: obsolete gadgets.”

The discarded devices were given to smelting contractors to “extract the gold, silver, and bronze elements that were used to produce the medals.” They obtained 32 kg of gold, 3,500 kg of silver, and 2,200 kg of bronze to create the 5,000 medals needed for the 2020 Games.           

Recycling efforts at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

It is the second time Tokyo is hosting the Olympics, the first being in 1964. According to NPR, the plan all along was for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be “the most environmentally friendly games, offsetting emissions, and using sustainable materials.” They report it is the “first-ever carbon-negative Olympics.”

In addition to the recycled medals, Japan has collected 24.5 tons of used plastic to create the Victory Ceremony podiums. Athletes are sleeping on cardboard beds. The Olympic torch contains recycled aluminum used in the housing during the disaster at Fukushima.

The “Towards Zero Carbon” plan has managed to eliminate 720,000 tons of CO2 emissions. More than 47,000 trees were planted throughout the village. All 42 venues are operating on 100% renewable energy, and an estimated 65% of the waste generated during the games will be reused or recycled.

NPR points out, “Tokyo will be remembered more as the pandemic games, rather than any claims to sustainability.” Despite COVID-19 concerns, the events have moving forward as athletes compete for a chance to wear the coveted medals.

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