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Making Medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics from Recycled Materials

Shuji Owada
Professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

The Olympic and Paralympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro have come to an end, and the remarkable performances of Japanese athletes is still fresh in our memory. Many of these athletes are also making steady efforts daily to win gold, silver, or bronze medals. Incidentally, do you know what materials are used to make these medals?

The Olympic Charter, 2003, stipulated that, "The medals shall be at least 60mm in diameter and 3mm thick. The medals for first and second places shall be of silver of at least 925-1000 grade; the medal for first place shall be gilded with at least 6g of pure gold." and recent medals seems to be still made in accordance with the above Charter.

A total of 2,488 medals were produced for the Rio Olympics and 2,642 for the Paralympics. It is reported that 30% of the silver used for these medals were recycled materials and that the gold materials were produced without using mercury. The latter comment was added because there were formerly cases Brazil’s Amazon valley where gold dust was illegally collected using mercury. Such method is not used in Japan.

Figure 1: The photo shows the prototype of a gold medal produced entirely from end-of-life small home electric appliances.

This article discusses the option to use recycled materials for medals in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Given the recycling technology Japan currently has, it is possible to produce materials for all gold, silver, and bronze medals using 100% recycled materials. If Japan succeeds in such an attempt, it would be the first of its kind in Olympic history and would fit the intentions of Yuriko Koike, the Governor of Tokyo and the former Minister of the Environment, who advocates an "Ecolympics." This movement is being driven under the leadership of Kohmei Halada of the National Institute for Materials Science (I happen to be one of the supporters) and is becoming national through support shown online and media news coverage. At Waseda University, not only I but Kankyo (meaning “Environmental” in Japanese) Rodriguez, an authorized club at the university which I serve as chairperson, has also offered to participate in the movement earlier than any other group. We have organized to collect small home electric appliances that contain a high percentage of gold at various events held in and outside the university. The photograph on the left shows a prototype of a gold medal that was created by a company from such electric appliances at Mr. Halada's request. The link (*) below is an in-depth article on the movement, which was published on the front page of The Tokyo Shimbun, with a photograph of actively engaged members of Kankyo Rodriguez.

I support the movement for four reasons: (1) I believe that this movement will bring about a ground swell of interest in the Tokyo Olympics, so that not only athletes and other parties concerned but the entire nation will also become part of the event; (2) I hope that the recycling technology of Japan, an environmentally advanced country (a country built on environmental technology), will be recognized by the world anew; (3) I expect that the percentage of end-of-life small home electric appliances collected under the Act on Promotion of Recycling of Small Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment, which came into force in 2013, will increase; and (4) I anticipate that this movement will bring the underlying strength of nonferrous metal industry, which supports Japan’s materials industry, to light.

However, there are in fact many factors to consider, which can be summarized into the following: how to set aside collected end-of-life small home electric appliances for producing medals without hindering ongoing economic activities and how to actually produce gold, silver, and bronze medals from the collected, recycled materials. Both issues are extremely challenging if we try to realize this plan.

Let us look at the first issue. Currently, 49 certified companies are authorized to collect end-of-life small home electric appliances nationwide. Would they be able to work together and create a new collection route for medal production, without interfering the existing one? Secondly, in their gold, silver, and bronze production processes, many companies in the nonferrous metal industry put end-of-life small home electric appliances into a furnace as auxiliary materials for natural ore. How would they establish a process specifically for 100% recycled materials to meet the demands of this movement? In an event like the Olympics, which draws the attention of the whole world, the most important aspect regarding both of these issues is how to ensure fairness between related industries and corporations.

While there is a strong desire to successfully lead this extremely momentous plan (which seems so to me at least) of making Olympic medals from 100% recycled materials, it is also true that we have to overcome the difficult matters mentioned above one by one and go forward. In the past, there were unfortunately countless cases in which brilliant plans failed all at once when they were put into practice. In order to carry out this plan on recycled Olympic medals, I sincerely hope that all industries, enterprises, individuals, and other parties concerned with medal production will provide extraordinary support.

Lastly, I kindly ask those of you who endorse this movement will push the Support button on the website mentioned below and share the movement among your friends as well.

"Let's make the Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medals from recycled materials that we collect together!"

(*) These initiatives were reported on the front page of the September 5 issue of The Tokyo Shimbun.

Shuji Owada
Professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

[Profile]
Professor Shuji Owada was born in 1956. In 1984, he completed the doctoral program in resource and metal engineering at Waseda University Graduate School of Science and Engineering and obtained a Ph.D. in engineering. After working as research associate, lecturer, and assistant professor at the university, he became professor in 1995. He was also member of the Council for Science and Technology and the Industrial Structure Council, associate member of the Science Council of Japan, technical member of NEDO, president of the Resources Processing Society of Japan, vice president of the Mining and Materials Processing Institute of Japan, and visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, Tohoku University, and Akita University. His field of expertise is resource engineering and mineral processing. He has received awards from the Mining and materials Processing Institute of Japan and the Resources Processing Society of Japan for his papers, the Best Paper Award from the Earth 2013 International Conference, and the Lifetime Achievement Award. His publications include An Attempt to Build a Society with Zero Garbage (Nikkei Business Publications) and A Dictionary of Recycling and Waste (Industrial Research Center of Japan).