For the first time in Olympic history, all the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to the winning athletes were developed from recycled materials. The sourcing, collection, and manufacture of the medals was part of a highly orchestrated urban mining project designed to showcase how the Tokyo Olympics were sustainable to a large extent.
In June 2021, a sculpture of the G7 leaders was developed to look like Mount Rushmore. The sculpture was made of electronic waste and was erected in Cornwall ahead of the G7 Summit. Aptly named Mt Recyclemore, it aimed to showcase the destruction caused by the careless disposal of electronic gadgets and devices.
While the Summit brought some of the world’s leading democracies together primarily to fight the virus and create a greener future, the sculpture also brought a reminder of a catastrophe called electronic waste that needs to be managed and effectively controlled.
As per a UN report, more than 53 million tons of e-waste were generated in 2019 globally. This was nearly 9 million tons more than just five years before.
The G-7 countries comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the USA have begun showcasing a stronger focus on managing the mounting issue of electronic waste.
During the June 2021 Summit, the G-7 leaders released a joint statement committing to "work towards a clean and circular economy, including through measures to tackle all forms of waste, including plastics and e-waste." They emphasized the importance of ensuring the safe and sustainable management of e-waste, which can contain hazardous substances such as lead, mercury, and cadmium.
Additionally, several G-7 countries have taken individual initiatives to address e-waste. For example, many European Union nations have implemented regulations requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal of electronic products they manufacture. This pushes them to design and produce products that are simpler to repair and recycle.
Japan has introduced a recycling program for electronic waste, and the United States has enacted legislation requiring federal agencies to discard electronic waste responsibly.
The G-7 countries are also strengthening ties on urban mining whereby the growing piles of electronic waste get mined once again as secondary raw materials without a compromise in quality and properties.
Mobile phones and laptops can more than 40 metals and minerals through urban mining including utility metals like copper, iron, and aluminium as well as precious metals and rare earths.
A visit a couple of months ago by the Japanese minister for economy and trade to the United States asked for the creation of a network with the USA and Europe for recycling rare metals from electronic waste that would be one of the highlights of the Summit that Japan will host at Hiroshima in May 2023.
A framework for a much-awaited and easier cross-border transfer of waste is also in the pipeline. In 2025, an updated Basel Convention concerning electronic waste will be formalized that will enforce restrictions on the transfer of hazardous and potentially explosive e-waste.
Such developments have been hastened as rare metals emerge as an economic security concern given the monopoly that China holds in the production and mining of rare earths.
Rare earth metals are a critical component in smartphones, sophisticated tools, cutting-edge electronics, motors, electric vehicles, and more. To alleviate any risks to economic security, the G-7 is looking to work together on collecting e-waste and turning it into a source of valuable metals.
Urban mining is still a nascent industry but the potential is phenomenal. Cities are saddled with bludgeoning landfills that can be termed an endless repository of wealth.
Technological expertise to accelerate these efforts will bear fruits in the immediate future. More than just a supply of critical materials and metals, environmental conservation gets a major fillip.
Collaboration among countries is key. Governments need to ensure a seamless ecosystem where knowledge and technology can be profitably shared for benefit of all stakeholders. Rekosistem, an Indonesian startup has created an app that connects consumers with responsible waste management services that segregate and accurately dispatch waste collected to the right waste recyclers. A small step that boosts efficiency and profitability for all players. Governments need to encourage industry with technology transfers.
Overall, it seems that the G-7 countries are recognizing the importance of addressing the growing problem of e-waste and are taking steps to address it through a combination of collective action and individual initiatives. Other nations too are joining the list to reap the benefits of urban mining on the economy and the environment.