Surfing, E-waste, and the 2020 Olympics

Did you know that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are going to feature surfing as one of the sports?

I learned this fact by talking with another member of The Riveter, the co-working space where I have a desk. I’ll call him Clark because that’s how he introduced himself.

Clark recently moved into the space and had heard that I write website content, so he wanted to chat. One of the things I love about co-working is the opportunity to engage in intelligent conversations during a brief break from writing. Many writers are introverts, but I get my energy from interacting with people, so co-working is a great fit.

When Clark mentioned surfing as an Olympic sport, I decided to do some research. I learned a few facts about the business of professional surfing. According to an article in Surfer Today magazine, the World Surf League (WSL) is the premier sports management company for professional surfing competitions. The WSL currently has over six million followers on Facebook and signed an agreement with the social media giant last year. Even though its CEO is female, the WSL has yet to equalize prize money for male and female competitors. That’s too bad, but not surprising.

Surfers tend to be concerned about climate change and ocean plastics, which makes sense given that the future of their sport depends on the health of the oceans. Sustainable Surf, a nonprofit based in California, promotes the use of recycled materials to build surfboards and educates the surfing community about an “ocean-friendly lifestyle.”

Sustainable Surf’s Waste to Waves program encourages people to recycle used Styrofoam packaging at surf shops. The waste Styrofoam is ground up, melted, and compacted to make blanks for building surfboards. Unlike some applications for recycled plastic, the recycled foam is just as strong as conventional surfboard foam made from virgin materials, which means no sacrifice in quality or performance.

Clark said something else that captured my attention: he claimed that all the medals to be awarded in Tokyo were to be made from metals recovered from e-waste.

I’ve written about urban mining in my upcoming book, Material Value, so I’m well aware of the opportunity to resell metals extracted from consumer electronics for the purpose of making more electronics. I hadn’t given a thought, however, to sourcing metals for Olympic medals.

Japan has been soliciting used electronics since 2017 with the express purpose of extracting metals for gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Tokyo 2020 Games. As of October 2018, the country had collected over five million smartphones from residents.

As you might suspect, the gold medals are not pure gold. They are mostly silver with pure gold plating. The total weight of gold is about 6 grams per medal. It’s possible to extract that much gold from around 200 smartphones. One million smartphones could, therefore, yield the 30 kilograms of gold requested to produce all the gold medals for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Silver Olympic medals are indeed made from solid sterling silver, an alloy that contains at least 92.5 percent silver. The rest is usually copper.

And the bronze medal? While the electronic components inside smartphones contain gold, silver, and copper, bronze isn’t used for electrical contacts. Bronze is, however, primarily copper, with small additions of other metals.

The alloy used for bronze medals contains 97 percent copper plus some tin and zinc. Tin is used in solders, but, as far as I know, smartphones don’t contain any zinc. Still, it is possible to extract most of the metal needed for bronze medals from used electronic devices.

Regardless of the details, sourcing Olympic medals via a form of urban mining makes for good publicity around e-waste. The year 2020, however, will not be the first to use environmentally-friendly materials to make Olympic medals. That endeavor began with the Rio 2016 Games, where the gold was certified to be free of mercury contamination and medals incorporated recycled silver and copper.

I may get the chance to help Clark create compelling content for his website, especially if he develops e-commerce solutions for businesses that value a healthy environment. Regardless, I got to learn some interesting facts that encouraged me to delve deeper.

Julia GoldsteinComment