Although the Tokyo Olympics began with a muted ceremony in a near-empty stadium amid anger and disbelief in much of Japan, Games medals made from recycled electronics have finally got a chance to shine.
Japan had turned obsolete electronics into Olympic, and Paralympic medals, one of the most coveted prizes in sport, in an "act of 21st-century alchemy" before the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened Friday.
Tokyo 2020 medallists have become the first in the history of the Games to hang medals made from recycled electrical goods around their necks.
Chinese air rifle shooter Qian Yang became the first athlete to step to the podium and have a gold medal placed around her neck after the first events started Saturday. Qian is also the first athlete to receive a gold medal made from recycled electronics.
The precious prizes – 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals – have been crafted from around 80,000 tonnes of small electrical goods – including 6.21 million used phones.
The medals started as just a pile of old tech when the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project sourced small electronic devices from all over Japan, the organisers said.
In a two-year nationwide campaign, Japan extracted enough gold, silver and bronze from old gadgets to make Games medals. Before taking the round glossy shape of an Olympic medal, electrical goods had to be sorted out, dismantled, smelted and refined, according to Tokyo 2020.
Around 90% of Japanese cities, towns, and villages participated in the medal project by setting up donation pick-up sites where thousands of people donated obsolete consumer electronics.
Electronic waste (e-waste) is the fastest-growing part of the world's domestic waste stream. The world generated a record 7.3kg per person of e-waste in 2019, according to the UN.
However, most of this waste never reaches collection centres. Only 20% of discarded electronics are recycled; the rest is either dumped or burned.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee saw this as an opportunity and invited people to donate their old electronic devices.
The campaign finally produced 32kg of gold, 3,500kg of silver and 2,200kg of bronze from nearly 80,000 tonnes of electronic devices, which were then moulded into glittering Olympic medals.
"The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project aims towards an innovative future for the world. From April 2017 to March 2019, small electronic devices, including mobile phones were collected to produce the Olympic and Paralympic medals," the organisers said.
Making medals from recycled electronics is not new. In Rio 2016, 30% of the sterling silver to make the gold and silver medals came from recycled materials, including leftover mirrors, old car parts, and X-ray plates.
But Tokyo has elevated it to a different level – the first ever Games where all of the medals that both the Olympians and Paralympians will go away with are made from recycled e-waste, a particularly dangerous concern for the environment.
By going all the way, they have essentially demonstrated that not an ounce of these precious metals have to be extracted from the earth again, in order to serve the Olympics. It is a triumphant demonstration of Japanese society's advanced thinking around matters relating to the environment, as well as their powers of execution.
Paris and Los Angeles, slated to host the next two Summer Games, and champions of environmentalism in their own right, must already know that as the torch passes to them, it will come with the responsibility to carry forward this most precious legacy of Tokyo 2020.