Crews recycle phones to craft 5,000 Tokyo Olympics medals

The front and reverse of the Tokyo 2020 gold medal, made from gold and silver recovered from recycled gadgets. (Tokyo 2020)

All 5,000 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games medals unveiled Wednesday were molded entirely from metal extracted from recycled consumer electronics over the past two years.

A total of 78,985 tons of discarded devices were collected at Japanese retailers, schools, post offices and on street corners, according to Olympic.org. In all, 6.21 million used mobile phones, digital cameras, handheld games and laptops were dismantled and melted down by contractors.

The metal yield was 30.3 kg of gold, 4,100 kg of silver and 2,700 kg of bronze.

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Recycled medals first appeared at the Rio 2016 Games, where about 30% of the silver and bronze medals came from recycled materials. But the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project was the first time a country’s citizens have been actively involved in donating electronic devices used to make the medals.

The winning designs on the medals were picked from 400 entries. They came from Junichi Kawanish, director of the Japan Sign Design Association and the Osaka Design Society. Officials unveiled them one year before the start of the Games on July 24, 2020.

The medals are 85 mm in diameter and 12.1 mm at their thickest part. The gold medals use 6 grams of gold plating over pure silver; the silver medals are pure silver; and the bronze medals use a brass alloy of 95% copper and 5% zinc. The International Olympic Committee mandated that the design include the five Olympic rings, the name of the games and the Greek goddess of victory Nike in front of the Panathenic stadium. 

On the front of the medals, Nike appears winged and walking ahead. The reverse side is a modern design with a myriad circle effect.  

Other recycled items will be used at the Games, including plastic donated by the public and recovered from the oceans to be used for podiums at medal ceremonies. The uniforms of torchbearers will produced partly from recycled plastic bottles and even the Olympic torch has been produced using aluminum waste from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake. Toyota will provide zero-emission vehicles including some fuel cell electric vehicles.

The concept for the recycled medals emerged in 2017. At the time, Takeshi Matsuda, a four-time Japanese Olympic swimming medalist, said, “In this way, the medals become memorable for everyone, not just the athletes…It’s a great project that turns your old phones into athletes’ treasured medals.” 

Olympic officials are working with other sports teams in Japan to recycle consumer electronics into medals for winning athletes.

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