Japan faces silver shortage for 2020 Olympics medals

A total of at least 5,000 medals are required for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.
A total of at least 5,000 medals are required for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Japan is facing growing concern over a shortage of silver, amid efforts to use only recycled metals in the medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Half the necessary bronze has been collected in the year since collection began, but nearly twice as much silver is needed. If the situation remains unchanged, organisers likely will face a shortage.

With collection scheduled to end one year from now, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games will accelerate its efforts by newly installing collection points at universities and post offices across the country.

Recycled metals were used to produce medals for the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, while for the 2020 Tokyo Games, a plan is under way to use only metals recovered from small electronic devices such as old smartphones. It is the first such attempt in Olympic history.

Small electronic devices are also called "urban mines". For example, a laptop computer contains about 0.3g, about 0.84g of silver and about 81.6g of bronze. Japan is said to be one of the world's leading countries in terms of the amount of precious metals contained in small electronic devices.

According to the organising committee, there will be an equal number of gold, silver and bronze medals for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. A total of at least 5,000 medals are required.

Silver and bronze medals are made almost entirely from pure silver and bronze. But under International Olympic Committee rules, a gold medal should be made by using silver as a base material with at least 6g of pure gold plated onto it.

About 10kg of gold and about 736kg of bronze are needed for the Tokyo Games. About 1,230kg of silver, nearly double the amount of bronze, is estimated to be needed.

Since April last year (2017), the organising committee, the Environment Ministry, the Tokyo metropolitan government and others have been collecting small electronic devices such as old smartphones and personal computers.

As of March this year, at the halfway point to the collection deadline, half the necessary bronze had been collected. Since gold and silver are still being refined, the specific amounts that have been collected are unknown.

"Given the collection pace of bronze, we are significantly short of silver, which we need twice as much of as bronze," an official of the organising committee said.

Collection boxes for smartphones and small electronic devices are installed at outlets of NTT Docomo, which is participating in the project, across the nation. There are also boxes in municipal government buildings, mainly in Tokyo.

At NTT Docomo outlets, it is estimated that a total of 3.2 million smartphones have been collected over the past year, surpassing the annual average of 3 million until the previous year.

The number of municipal governments with collection points increased from 624 at the beginning of the collection to 1,404 in March this year. The project has spread nationwide.

However, at the current pace, the organisers likely will run short of silver. Therefore, the organising committee newly installed collection boxes at 3,000 locations across the nation, mainly such as post offices, from late March this year.

From here on, they plan to install more collection points and strengthen promotional activities in cooperation with universities and department stores, aiming to accelerate the pace of collection over the remaining year.

"Just like the recycling of plastic bottles and empty cans, we aim to achieve a society where the separate collection of electronic devices is natural," an official of the organising committee said. "To take advantage of the Tokyo Games to achieve this, we want to call for many people to cooperate with us."