An old, unused smartphone lying around the house just collecting dust might one day be a source of admiration, dangling proudly around an Olympic athlete’s neck at a medal podium ceremony.
Hironao Ito, a sophomore at Waseda University, is hoping this idea alone will spark excitement among Japanese and give the country an excuse to ramp up efforts toward becoming a greener society ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
Ito, 21, belongs to a university club known as Environment Rodrigues, a student-run body whose mission is to raise environmental awareness on campus.
The club, named after a lush tropical island in the Indian Ocean, was formed in 1997 and now has 50 members, including Ito.
Of the many projects the club is engaged in, Ito says none has attracted as much public interest as the “urban mine medal project,” a joint effort by Rodrigues and an academic society known as Ecomaterials Forum to create all three classes of Olympic medals using 100 percent recycled metals.
“I understand it would cost the country money, but I don’t see why anyone would say no to the idea of electronic waste recycling,” Ito said in an interview.
Tokyo Olympic organizers said early last month they will support the recycling campaign by asking the public to donate old mobile phones and electrical appliances specifically for this purpose.
They also revealed that 2 tons of scrap metal now referred to as “urban mines” are needed to make 5,000 of the gold, silver and bronze medals.
A spokesperson for the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee said waste-collection companies are being recruited until the Monday deadline with an eye to starting the scrap-metal gathering activities next spring.
NTT Docomo Inc., which reclaims more than 3 million old mobile phones from customers each year, also plans to submit a cooperation proposal to the games organizers and contribute to the nationwide movement.
Should Japan succeed in the eco-friendly effort, it will become the first host country to provide Olympic medals made with 100 percent recycled materials.
According to Ito, using e-waste to reclaim bronze, or even silver, is not much of a challenge, but the steps involved in recovering gold are time-consuming and costly.
The Rio 2016 Organizing Committee revealed that the silver and bronze medals for the summer games were made 30 percent from coins, mirrors, X-ray plates and other recycled materials.
“Because of the financial burden, no country has been able to make gold medals using only recycled materials. It means a lot that Japan takes on this challenge, more so because Japan is not resource-rich,” he said.
Ito explained the five steps for recovering gold from a mobile phone: opening the device, removing the circuit board, melting it with iron sulfide, straining to separate the gold, and smelting.
In a report his team put together, he reveals that a smartphone generally contains only 0.03 gram of gold, and that 200 phones are required to produce six grams of pure gold — the minimum amount required by the International Olympic Committee to produce a gold medal.
To produce the 1,500 gold medals that are usually prepared for the Olympics, about 320,000 mobile phones are needed, which explains why Team Rodrigues has been on a mission to collect 320,000 signatures for an online petition since July.
As of December, more than 10,000 have signed. But Ito said the project actually has a bigger aim in mind.
“Our final goal is not to create a gold medal,” he said. “Our aim is for people to become familiar with resource circulation technology. I want people to spread the word about our project, which is why we started the petition.
“It’s just a way to wake people up,” he added, explaining that he is using the Olympics as an opportunity to change the mindsets of the Japanese people and make them more eco-conscious.
It’s more realistic to make gold medals out of corporate e-waste than collecting 320,000 mobile phones from individuals. But Ito says the figure is a way to appeal to public sentiment in Japan, where many have their heads buried in their smartphones while walking, cycling or even driving, and most likely have an old model or two sitting in a drawer somewhere.
The Environment Ministry says that 650,000 tons of electronics, including 280,000 tons of precious metals worth ¥84.4 billion, are discarded in Japan each year.
“I want more people to have interest in a zero-waste society. It can be paper, bottle or food. It doesn’t matter what. But I want recycling to become a part of our daily lives.”
Ito says he is not the stereotypical “overbearing” environmentalist type. If he sees someone littering on the streets, he says he would much prefer to pick up the trash himself rather than berate the litterbug.
“I’m not going to try and stop anyone from littering,” Ito said. “If a man wants to litter it’s his choice, but my hope is that the guy who throws his candy wrapper on the ground does it knowing the waste could turn into a resource.
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