Updated: Aug 31
Organizers of Tokyo Olympics 2020 used the Games as an opportunity to showcase new ideas and innovative technologies which include the concept of Circular Economy, in which waste and pollution are reduced while products and materials are reused or recycled.
To make the 5000 gold, silver and bronze medals, precious metals were extracted from electronic devices contributed by people all over Japan! Even the Olympic torch was produced using aluminium from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the 2011 East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami. The promotion of a circular economy goes further. Organisers expect to reuse or recycle 99 per cent of all the items and goods procured and to reuse or recycle 65 per cent of all waste. Approx. 78,985 tons were collected by municipal authorities across Japan (used small electronic devices including mobile phones). Approximately 32kgs of Gold, 3,500kgs of Silver and 2200 kgs of Bronze was collected in the entire process making this year Olympics one of the most Circular Games in terms of metal usage ever.
It was heartening to see the Indian Hockey Men’s team on the podium this time and that made me curious to understand why the third place receives Bronze and not say pure Iron or Aluminium? It makes sense to give Gold and Silver which resonates with everyone being precious metals. But why give a medal that has a metal price not more than $5! So let’s get to the bottom of this!
Historically speaking the choices of gold, silver and bronze were to represent the first three Ages of Man in Greek mythology: the Golden Age, when men lived among the gods; the Silver age, where youth lasted a hundred years; and the Bronze Age, the era of heroes, and was first adopted at the 1904 Summer Olympics.
Economically speaking, while the first place (the gold medal) is composed of at least 92.5% of silver, plated with 6 grams of gold; the metal value was about US$494 in 2010. The second place (the silver medal) is composed of 92.5% silver and the metal value was about US$260 in 2010. The third place (the bronze medal) is essentially an alloy consisting of 97% copper with 0.5% tin and 2.5% zinc; the metal value was about US$3 in 2010. The Bronze medal given in the 2021 Olympics consisted of 95% copper and 5% zinc with a metal value of about $5.
If there were medals for which metals in the periodic table are most circular then Copper would be in contention for the gold medal. If done well, Copper could be a perfect example of a circular material provided by nature. The life of copper is infinite and has no end phase. Once mined, it can be recycled over and over with no loss of properties. It can be recycled repeatedly without any loss of performance, and recycling requires up to 85% less energy than primary production. Globally, this saves 40 million tonnes of CO2 annually.
Fun Fact: If not Gold, then would a Silver or a Bronze medal make me happier?
I went to Google scholar to find out whether there has been a study which medal would make me happier? Surprisingly enough, In 1995, three social psychologists - Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich - applied the concept of counterfactual thinking to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. With the research question Does counterfactual thinking explain the different responses to missing "the gold"? In other words, is it more frustrating to get a silver medal or a bronze medal? Logically, most of us would say we would be happier winning the silver medal. However, the researchers hypothesized the opposite. The study showed that athletes who won the bronze medal were significantly happier with their winning than those athletes who won the silver medal. The silver medallists were more frustrated because they had missed the gold medal, while the bronze medallists were simply happy to have received any honours at all (instead of no medal for fourth place). So, if you are a behavioural economist, one could put a higher value on Bronze than Silver!
Some even believe that the core values of a circular economy are rooted in our past and goes as far as the Bronze Age/ Copper Alloy Age (if your bronze axe broke, you could remelt it and produce the same axe with the same quality, again. Recycling, as a core economic practice, was invented in the Bronze Age). From about 2500BC, prehistoric people started to combine copper and tin regularly, making metal known as bronze. The mass adoption of this artificial material caused significant shifts. Societies reoriented themselves economically because making bronze meant moving materials over long distances. Interesting right?
Copper demand has been growing rapidly all through the 20th century with no signs showing that it will be slowing down anytime soon. It is used in a broad range of applications, mainly because of its unique electricity conducting properties, which also makes it difficult to substitute. It will become even more crucial for society in the future, given the expected increase of copper-intensive low carbon energy and electrification of transport technologies. Renewable energy systems use up to 12 times more copper than conventional power systems. Copper also typically improves energy efficiency. One tonne of copper used in rotating machines—such as an electric motor or a wind turbine—saves 7,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions over its lifetime.
The circular economy should be about reducing the use of materials and the consumption of waste. Metal mining and recycling often provide several valuable co-products, which are not only unavoidable but also needed: they are an integral part of the production process, but also find uses in other ways and sectors. One of copper’s co-products, iron silicates, is, for example, commonly used in the building and construction sectors. Hence, the use of iron silicates can contribute to a circular economy by avoiding environmental, financial and spatial burdens of landfilling, thus preserving natural mineral resources in the loop and conserving energy. We as a society should consider the importance of copper and other raw materials as we strive for carbon neutrality because they will play an integral role in helping us meet our climate and energy goals—and supporting our economy—in the decades to come. It would be really nice to see how Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028 could take steps further to ensure that they are completely Circular!
About the Author
Piyush Dhawan (LinkedIn) is the co-founder of the Circular Collective was awarded the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship last year to work on the topic of Circular Economy. He has for the past decade been working with Bilaterals and Multilaterals on a range of topics including business and biodiversity, Vision 2030 SDGs and Future of Indian Cities
Euractiv (2018). Metals in Circular Economy Special Report, https://en.euractiv.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/special-report/EURACTIV-Special-Report-Metals-in-the-circular-economy.pdf
Medvec, V. H., Madey, S. F., & Gilovich, T. (1995). When less is more: counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic medalists. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(4), 603.
Schipper, B. W., Lin, H. C., Meloni, M. A., Wansleeben, K., Heijungs, R., & van der Voet, E. (2018). Estimating global copper demand until 2100 with regression and stock dynamics. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 132, 28-36.
Circular economy: ancient populations pioneered the idea of recycling waste (2019) by Maikel Kuijpers Assistant Professor, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science