Whereas the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will go down in history as the most controversial of all time, starting with the socio-economic aspects still prevailing in Brazil, which has accompanied the carioca city since the 2014 World Cup, with all the organizational flaws (such as the water of some pools that turned green all of a sudden), the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 will be full of change, technology, and respect for the environment.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is debating the introduction of five new sports that could be part of the Olympics starting from 2020: baseball, karate, skateboarding, surfing, and climbing. Not only Japan being one of the countries that most invests in robotics research and development, this will be the key element.
The closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics has given us a glimpse of the technological marvels possessed by the Japanese people. Not only because of the video presentation projected on the screens of the Maracana; the images of the handover, when the Prime Minister agreed to dress up like the digital hero Super Mario, will remain etched in the collective memory. If some people saw this gesture as a simple trick to remind the world the place of the next Olympic event, the country of the rising sun has put forward a much more serious proposal: the medals that will be delivered to the winning athletes will be made of smartphones and other electronic devices, from which gold, silver and bronze will be extracted.
A strong and noble gesture, but, most likely, it will not help to solve the problem of electronic waste. Yet, exactly because of the resonance of the Olympic event, this choice could help, Japanese and all other citizens of the world, to make us a little more sensitive about it. Maybe we will think twice before we get in the queue in front of stores to grab hold of the latest model, when even our small phone still works just fine. But if the best way to avoid creating waste consists in using devices as long as possible and repair them, it is also true that recycling can help preserve the health of our planet. And, consequently, that of each one of us and that of our children. So much so that this decision was taken thinking about a “sustainable future.”
If we think that for the 2012 London Olympics 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 pounds of silver and 700 kilograms of copper (the main component of bronze) sufficed, for the Tokyo Games the amount of material to be recovered is relatively little. Japan, only in 2014, managed to recover 143 kg of gold, 1,566 pounds of silver and 11,120 tons of copper from the electronic waste. According to the Nikkei magazine, the recovered gold and silver of the country of the rising sun represent, respectively, 22% and 16% of world reserves.
The Japanese will commit over the next four years to further improve their recycle of electronic waste (also called WEEE). To date, it produced about 650,000 tons of WEEE, but it is estimated that only 100,000 (cca) end up being recycled. However, the materials obtained from recycling operations have not been quantified. Also another aspect should be pointed out: we cannot be certain that Japan will be able to get all the necessary metal for the medals from computer junk, because the metals recovered from waste is already absorbed, almost entirely, to produce other electronic devices, a process that involves silver in the first place.
Those of Tokyo, in short, will go down in history as the greenest Olympics ever, also because of its facilities. In fact, many engineers are diligently working to build a completely hydrogen-powered village. This other choice is linked to another project, which is much bigger: the Japanese government has been trying since 2011 to develop an alternative and environment friendly energy system to substitute the current ones, alimented by hydrocarbons. If Japan were to pass the Olympic test, this technology could also be applied to the rest of the country, and why not, also in the rest of the world. The Japanese project is unprecedented, ambitious and not easy to implement. But nothing is impossible for the country that was Super Mario’s native land.