If you won a Gold Medal at the Olympics up until 1912, you would have received a medal made from solid gold. Olympic medals have a minimum size of a 60mm diameter and a 3mm thickness so, at those minimum sizes, the value of gold in one of those medals in current terms would be $13,000. With approximately 1,700 Gold Medals given out at a summer Olympics, the $22 million cost of gold alone seems somewhat excessive.

Sensibly, the decision was made after the cancelled Olympics of 1916 to reduce the amount of gold in medals. A modern gold medal must contain at least 92.5 per cent silver (eighty times cheaper than gold) and a minimum of 6 grams of gold. Total metals value in a modern Gold Medal is more like $800.

So why is any of this relevant in a technology column?

The medals being handed out in Tokyo at the moment are made from gold, silver and bronze but all those metals are living out their second life, having all been recycled from electronic waste.

In 2017 Japan announced they would collect old electronics and repurpose them in to medals. Five million mobile phones and other electronics with a total mass of 47,000 tonnes were broken down in to 30kg of gold; 3.5 tonnes of silver and 2.2 tonnes of bronze. A total of 5,000 medals of the three colours were created.

Last year we generated 55 million tonnes of global e-waste with an increase of 21 per cent over the last five years. This has been mainly fuelled by more people buying electronic products with shorter life cycles and fewer options for repair. The throwaway society we live in is certainly not sustainable long-term, and we are seeing more options, like the production of medals at the Olympics, to try and recycle our electronic goods. Landfill is certainly not the preferred option for the long-term benefit of our society.

Which then brings us to batteries in electric vehicles. One of the common mistruths I see is that, sure, electric vehicles are better for the environment now but, you just wait, all those batteries in landfill will kill the planet! We should therefore keep driving petrol cars? When a new petrol car is bought, not many people ask about the cost to the environment or financially when the petrol engine has died after 250,000km. With electric cars, though, everyone wants to know what will happen to the battery after it dies after 500,000km!

The reality is that an electric battery typically doesn’t just stop dead. It slowly degrades. After 100,000km it may be down to 95 per cent of new capacity. After 300,000km it may be down to 90 per cent. You could choose to replace the battery at 80 per cent or 70 per cent or at whatever stage you deem it is not giving you adequate range. At that point in time, the battery would be more useful if it was repurposed rather than recycled. For example, it may then be used in a building battery management system where it is easier to add additional capacity. After they have been repurposed, they may eventually be recycled but manufacturers are already at the point where they can ground down the components to a fine powder to extract raw materials such as lithium; nickel; manganese and lithium and recover 97 per cent of the battery components to then be made in to…yep, new batteries!

If too much tech is not enough, search for my weekly podcast called ‘Tech Talk by Mathew Dickerson’ on your favourite podcasting app.

Mathew Dickerson

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