The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo is near, and you know what happens usually. As tradition dictates, the coveted prizes come in gold, silver and bronze, but there’s something different this time. Adapting sustainable practices, the new medals are made entirely from recycled metals.
Between April 2017 and March 2019, people from across Japan donated their old electronics to the initiative, which was spearheaded by the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Now, we can find those precious metals in electronic devices, and a group of young Japanese environmentalists were the ones who proposed to strip down those metals from old devices. Those environmentalists wanted to raise awareness of the amount of electronic waste generated by most Japanese.
This country is known for its high-tech resources, but that has a drawback; the people are notorious for replacing gadgets frequently. Japanese citizens toss an estimated 650,000 tons of small electronics and home appliances every year, only about 100,000 tons of which are recycled.
Because of the environmentalists’ effort to raise awareness, the Olympic Committee launched the “Everyone’s Medal” program in February 2017. The campaign encouraged citizens to drop off unused gadgets at one of Japanese cellular giant NTT Docomo’s 2,400 stores, or at locations set up by Japan’s Environmental Sanitation Center.
According to the website of the Olympic Games, yellow collection boxes were installed in post offices and on street corners throughout Japan, and the mobile phone company NTT DoCoMo also accepted donations at its stores.
Through those donations, there were 78,985 tons of discarded devices. That included digital cameras, handheld games, laptops and 6.21 million used mobile phones. Then, some contractors dismantled and melted down the devices and they’ve successfully extracted around 30kg of gold, more than 4,000kg of silver and 2,200kg of bronze. Those are more than enough to make 5,000 medals that will be handed out at the games.
Since each gadget contains just traces of the precious metals, the organizers needed millions of devices to accumulate the 8 tons of material needed to craft the 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals. However, they had nothing to worry about.
By the time the collection drive ended in March 2017, Japanese residents had donated an astounding 78,895 tons of gadgets, including 6.21 million smartphones. The haul yielded the officials 70 pounds (32 kilos) of gold, 7,716 pounds (3,500 kilos) of silver, and 4,850 pounds (2,200 kilos) of bronze — more than enough to make every medal.
This idea might sound very ingenious, but this isn’t the first time that the Olympics use recycled materials for its prizes. As you might have already known, the silver and bronze medals of 2016 Rio Games were derived from recyclables. Only that time, it was around 30%.
But according to the Olympic officials, “the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project has certainly been unique in its scale, marking the first time that a country’s citizens have been proactively involved in donating the electronic devices used to make the medals.”
The person behind the design
Collecting precious metals from old electronic devices is one thing, but one other crucial thing is finding a talented artist to design the Olympic and Paralympic medals. There was a nation-wide competition for both professional designers and design students that drew more than 400 entries.
The chance was awarded to Junichi Kawanishi, director of the Japan Sign Design Association and the Osaka Design Society.
The front of Kawanishi’s winning design features the Tokyo Olympic emblem, which is a chequered ring in the “ichimatsu moyo” pattern, the name of the upcoming games (“Tokyo 2020”) and the Olympics’ enduring five-rings symbol. The other side includes Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, in front of the Panathenaic stadium. The design of the 85mm-in-diameter-sized medals was revealed last July.
There are many aspects of the design that those designers must follow. International Olympic Committee mandates that all medals must feature Nike, the stadium, the five-rings symbol and the official name of the games. However, with his creativity, Kawanishi brought a new twist to the medals with a ridged design that toys with the reflection of light.
In keeping with the International Olympics Committee regulations, each gold medal is crafted from pure silver with 6 grams of gold plating. Now, the IOC guidelines only require the silver medal to contain 92.5 percent of the metal. But because of the recycling campaign, the Tokyo 2020 medals are 100 percent pure silver. The bronze medal comprises a red brass alloy made up of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc.
Additionally, the medals will be placed in a circular case made from Japanese ash wood, handmade by Japanese craftsmen of manufacturer Yamagami Mokko. It’s adorned with unique ribbons, which were inspired by traditional Japanese patterns and kimono-layering techniques. In a way, you can really sense Japanese culture in spite of modernity in this design.
The organisers explained, “The cases themselves are a reflection of the dedicated craftsmen and the attention to detail that goes into each piece and, like the athletes who will receive the medals, each one is unique.”
Kawanishi said, “It is a great honour that my design was selected for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Medal. I never dreamed that the design I submitted only as a memorial to this lifetime event would be actually selected. With their shining rings, I hope the medals will be seen as paying tribute to the athletes’ efforts, reflecting their glory, and symbolising friendship.”
Regarding his design that toys with the reflection of light, Kawanishi explained, “By receiving light from various angles, I thought about the cheers from the public and those thoughts are reflected. Reflection of light reaches various directions so, I hope that the reflected light from the medal would reach all directions when it is worn by an athlete.”
Even though his design (and the announcement of him being the one who did it), Kawanishi was notified of his win last year. He was understandably surprised, since the competition was tough and he didn’t think he stood much of a chance. He said, “When I received a phone call, I was relaxing at home and had a few drinks. I became sober instantly. I remember that my heart was beating fast.”
Well, who isn’t going to be instantly sober when one hears news like that? But anyways, what do you think of this sustainable initiative?