For the first time in Olympic history, the medals at the Olympic Games contain gold, silver and copper that has been recovered from electronic waste (e-waste). The recovery of medals from e-waste is important, because it reduces demand for scarce metals such as gold and copper. The mining of metals is often tied up with a wide range of social and environmental risks.
In Europe, the quantity of e-waste is growing by three to five percent per year, almost three times as fast as the total waste flow . Despite the European Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which is intended to stimulate the collection and responsible processing of this waste, most discarded electrical and electronic equipment is not collected or recycled. A proportion of discarded European equipment is exported to developing countries as second-hand goods, where it will be dumped as waste sooner or later. There are also still illegal waste shipments from Europe to countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and China. These countries do not have the capacity to recycle e-waste responsibly and fully. This results in the loss of costly metals. But that is not the only problem. A lot of electronic equipment contains toxic materials which become hazardous to humans and the environment at the moment it’s dumped as waste or it’s poorly processed.
The complexity of the e-waste problem demands a multifaceted approach. Firstly, the increase of collection, reuse and recycling of discarded electronics is an important element in the solution to the e-waste problem. When old electronic equipment, such as mobile telephones and laptops, is collected separately, most of the metals can be recycled and reused, not only in new electronics, but also in Olympic medals, as the initiative of Teck shows us.
But the Olympic medal has two sides. The percentages of the reused metals are still minimal . The rest of the metals have primarily been mined. Mining companies are generally less concerned about human rights and environmental standards. Recycling can also never fully meet the increasing demand for materials for the growing production of electronics. For this reason, a shift is needed towards ecological design (eco-design) of equipment: designers can prevent the use of toxic and scarce metals as much as possible, and design their products in such a way that they can easily be disassembled and the materials reused.
In any event, the current revision of the European WEEE directive offers important opportunities for tackling the problem. In this context, SOMO’s E-waste Policy Paper offers specific policy options and recommendations for the public sector, businesses and social groups for stimulating the collection, reuse and recycling of e-waste. As far as the latter is concerned, the medals for the Olympic Winter games are an inspiring initiative.