53 million metric tons — this is the annual quantity of electronic trash (e-waste) created throughout the world. A business in England recently commissioned ‘Mount Recyclemore,’ a sculpture made entirely of e-waste, to attract the attention of world leaders attending the G7 Summit.
Japan, the host country for this year’s Olympics, chose to not only utilize the platform to raise awareness about the issue, but also to take action to address it. Tons of e-waste were utilized to create this year’s Olympic medals.
The initiative, dubbed as the ‘Tokyo 2020 Medal Project,’ began in 2017. Over a two-year period, the Olympic organizing committee in Japan undertook a nationwide effort to collect technological trash such as phones.
What are the materials used to make Olympic medals? It seems like a no-brainer – gold, silver, and bronze; it’s on the label! – but it’s not. The silver medal, on the other hand, is the only one fashioned entirely of its element.
So, what are the others made of, and what could you possibly do with them?
The gold ones aren’t made of pure gold since they would be very soft. Instead, each medal is made of pure silver with six grams of gold plating.
Gold and silver are both extremely stable elements that do not react with air, but gold is much more so. The silver would react to form silver nitrate if the medal was melted down and immersed in nitric acid, but the gold would stay stable, allowing you to separate the two metals.
A gold medal is 556 grams in weight. At an average market price of $80 per gram of gold and $1 per gram of silver, each medal contains approximately $1000 worth of precious metals — $480 gold and $550 silver.
Athletes have been known to sell their gold medals in their whole, reaping far higher earnings – some in the millions of dollars – so market value is likely not the greatest method to benefit from a gold medal.
Silver medals are the only ones composed entirely of a single element: Ag. Their purity makes them more chemically usable than the other medals; if you wanted to utilize the silver for plating a teacup or developing a better touch screen, all you had to do was heat it to 962°C and melt it down, no additional purification required.
Bronze is an old and well-known metal, but it isn’t a pure element, and bronze medals aren’t officially made of bronze — they’re made of brass.
Bronze is generally a copper-tin alloy, although bronze medals are made of 95 percent copper and 5% zinc. This is known as “red brass,” however industrial red brass, which is used in valves and pipes, is generally less pure, containing approximately 85% copper and a mix of tin, zinc, lead, and other metals.
Despite the fact that copper and zinc are both mild metals, they combine to form a considerably tougher metal. Because the bronze medal is the hardest and lightest (at 450 grams), it’s probably the ideal discus to use if you need one.
While it’s not a good idea to reuse metals once they’ve been turned into medals, it’s become a practice in recent years to use recycled elements in Olympic medals.
100% of the metals in the medals have been recycled in Tokyo. Between 2017 and 2019, individuals all throughout Japan contributed obsolete electrical gadgets, which were then mined for valuable metals.
For the bronze medals, the government gathered several million tons of equipment and mined 32 kilos of gold, 3500 kilograms of silver, and 2200 kilograms of copper and zinc.