Go for the (Recycled) Gold: Olympic Medals Made with E-waste

Image from vancouver2010.com

Athletes that make it to the podium at the Olympic Games in Vancouver are obviously winners—but their medals are also a small win for the planet: For the first time they’re made with recycled metals salvaged from electronic waste.

The amount of recycled material admittedly isn’t much—1.52% recycled gold in the first-place medals—but it highlights one of the numerous ways precious metals can be reused. Canadian mining company Teck Resources recovered the gold, silver, and bronze from old computers’ circuit boards, melted it down, and cast it into what the Olympic medals. Here’s a video about the process. 

Recycling materials prevents the need to pull more resources out of the ground—inevitably a dirty process—and diverts hazardous materials from seeping into the ecosystem at landfills. E-waste is a huge, growing problem. (Check out our feature, “Trashed,” in which writer Ellen Ruppel Shell follows her own digital detritus to the far ends of the earth.) 

A U.N. report out this week found that sales of electronic products in China and India, and throughout Africa and Latin America, will jump in the next decade, and warns that unless e-waste recycling efforts are ramped up, those nations are in for serious environmental and public health problems. A few startling findings:

-In South Africa and China for example, the report predicts that by 2020 e-waste from old computers will have jumped by 200 to 400 percent from 2007 levels, and by 500% in India

-By 2020 in China, e-waste from discarded mobile phones will be about 7 times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, 18 times higher.

-By 2020, e-waste from televisions will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India while in India e-waste from discarded refrigerators will double or triple.

-China already produces about 2.3 million tonnes of e-waste (2010 estimate) domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tonnes. And, despite having banned e-waste imports, China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries.

Former Audubon intern Shawn Query put together this list on how to responsibly get rid of your e-waste:

1. Return to sender. Many computer makers will take back their own monitors, CPUs, mice, keyboards, printers, and speakers at no extra charge to be recycled into new products or donated. Dell, for example, will pay the shipping on all of its computer products and will schedule a pickup time to take them off your hands—for free.

2. Find a responsible recycler. The Basel Action Network (BAN) partners with “e-cyclers” that have signed the Electronic Recycler’s Pledge of True Stewardship, which outlines the most rigorous criteria for recycling electronics in a socially and environmentally responsible way. BAN offers a list of recyclers by region, some of which accept mailed-in electronics.

3. Trade in. Circuit City offers a program through EZtradein.com that allows you to send in your computers, phones, camcorders, game systems, cameras, and even car audio equipment. You’ll receive a Circuit City gift card based on the value of the used parts.

4. Trade up. Many cell phone providers will give you the option to recycle your old phone when you purchase a fancy new one with a camera and better ringtones. The unwanted phones are then donated or safely recycled.

5. Drop it off. Staples, Best Buy, Office Depot, and select Fed Express/Kinkos all have areas within their stores to drop of cell phones and ink cartridges. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile will take back their phones, batteries, and accessories—no strings attached.

For additional resources, go to Earth911.org, the EPA’s “Plug-in To eCycling”, or the Electronic Industries Alliance.  

You might not receive an Olympic medal for your efforts, but you’ll be an eco champion.

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