Going for Gold!

Posted on February 13, 2017 by Gail Port

Have any of you been feeling like this lately?  I certainly have!  Which is why, after struggling to come up with a topic for this blog, I decided not to write about the uncertain future of the US EPA or the man who has been nominated to lead that agency, concerns about the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the frightening implications of climate change and unchecked global warming, the erosion of the Chevron doctrine, or the increasing disrespect for the judiciary.  Instead, I chose a topic that made me smile.

On February 1, 2017, the organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics announced that the Olympic medals for the 2020 Games will be made entirely out of recycled materials from computers, mobile phones and other small electronic devices. This public initiative is in direct response to Recommendation 4 of Olympic Agenda 2020, which states that sustainability must be integrated into all aspects of the planning and execution of the Games.  The organizers have partnered with mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo and the Japan Environmental Sanitation Center for a nationwide collection effort to gather 8 tons of metal from recycled electronics. It will involve over 2,000 collection boxes placed at offices and stores throughout Japan beginning in April 2017. The donated electronics will undergo chemical processing to separate out various metals to provide enough gold, silver and bronze for 5,000 medals.  The chemical production process is expected to result in 2 tons of metal: 42 kg of gold, 4920 kg of silver and 2944 kg of bronze. 

Olympic host cities traditionally have purchased the precious metals needed to make Olympic medals from mining firms.  A few host cities previously used recyclable materials in their medals.  Thirty percent of each of the silver and bronze medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics were made from recycled materials and the ribbons on which the medals were hung were made 50% from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics.  The recycled silver came from mirrors, waste solders and X-ray plates while the bronze came from waste from the Brazilian Mint.  The gold was mercury free and in compliance with sustainability standards from extraction to refining.  At the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, a local mining and metals company processed 6.8 metric tons of recycled circuit boards for materials for medals.  The Japanese initiative, however, is the first to involve extensive public participation and, if successful, will be the first to have medals composed entirely of recyclables. Japan has scant mineral resources, so apart from being sustainable and raising public awareness about waste minimization and the multitude of opportunities for e-waste beneficial reuse, this project will also result in cost savings. 

As technology continues to advance and drive the electronics market forward, electronic products—and particularly smart phones—quickly become outdated and are discarded for the next model or generation. And, the life cycle of an electronic device ends at the consumer. While recycling and disposal of e-waste is regulated in Japan, enforcement can be lax and public awareness and compliance low. 

Of course, we face similar obstacles in the United States.  On the federal level, while EPA has some authority to address e-waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, it does not have broad authority to implement a comprehensive federal program covering recycling of e-waste.  The EPA relies largely on voluntary compliance programs, which are not well publicized. Given the current political climate, we are unlikely to see significant advancement in addressing the e-waste problem, even though having one comprehensive set of rules regarding e-waste recycling and beneficial reuse likely would be more efficient for the manufacturers and distributors of electronic products as well as for the public. 

At least in New York, things on the e-waste recycling front are more optimistic.  New York has been praised for its e-waste recycling program under the Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act, which provides comprehensive regulation impacting manufacturers, retailers, consumers and recyclers throughout the life cycle of electronic devices.  The New York State Wireless Recycling Act requires wireless telephone providers that sell phones to accept up to 10 old cell phones per person per day.  At the local level, New York City is participating in an initiative to contribute zero waste to landfills by 2030.  As part of this initiative, NYC urges consumers to donate old electronics through donateNYC, or to participate in the take-back or drop-off program mandated by the Wireless Recycling Act.

Regardless of whether an e-waste program is voluntary or mandatory, at the foreign, federal, state or local level, the public must be educated, engaged and willing to comply with the program for it to be effective. While it’s too early to tell how effective Japan’s Olympic initiative will be, it certainly is a smile-worthy, innovative way to engage the public.