At sites in more than 1,500 of Japan’s municipalities and about 2,400 NTT Docomo electronics stores, over 47,000 tons of discarded electronics were collected, including more than five million cellphones, according to Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
By June 2018, the organizers had already collected enough bronze; by October 2018, they had more than 93 percent of the gold and 85 percent of the silver, he said, adding that the organizing committee anticipates that it will be able to make all of the medals from the donated items.
Recovering these metals also avoids additional mining, which is environmentally destructive and energy intensive.
The recycling industry, in which people break apart devices and remove copper, gold and other materials, has negative health consequences, according to the Lancet, and toxic chemicals from improper disposal can also get into the environment, causing pollution. And the problem could get worse. About a third of the global population was expected to have an internet-connected phone by 2017, according to a report from eMarketer. In the United States, the typical home has 65 electronic appliances, according to a study from Natural Resources Defense Council.
This initiative will not solve the e-waste crisis — that will likely come from governments and electronic companies, said Vanessa Gray, an official at the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency specializing in information and communications technology. But she said attention to the issue is important, because many people don’t know even what e-waste is and why it matters.
“Just for that, the Olympics story is really good,” she said. “In the end, it shows that the way we do things at the moment has terrible consequences for society, in terms of the negative health impacts and obviously impacts to climate change.
“It’s time for a system update.”