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Criticism grows against gov't 'urban mines' plan for Tokyo 2020 medals

In this June 15, 2018 file photo, Shunichi Suzuki, minister in charge of the Olympics and Paralympics, promotes a project to collect precious metals for medals from used mobile phones and other electronic devices, at the Cabinet Office in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Yet another government program linked to the 2020 Tokyo Games is facing criticism: extracting silver from used mobile phones and computers for Olympic and Paralympic medals.

Critics say the collection drive is reminiscent of a World War II government order to the public to donate metal items to make aircraft and bullets. They also lambasted the plan as a product of groupthink in the same vein as other games-related government initiatives, such as heat countermeasures, introduction of daylight saving time, and "mobilization" of student volunteers.

This fall, the Ministry of the Environment will urge some 230 municipalities hosting Olympic and Paralympic athletes to cooperate, and install device collection boxes of its own at public elementary and junior high schools.

According to the ministry, about 40 kilograms of gold, 4,900 kilograms of silver and 3,000 kilograms of copper are needed to make some 5,000 medals for the Tokyo Games. There is already enough gold and copper thanks to a collection drive organized at NTT DoCoMo mobile phone shops and post offices. But stocks of silver, which is in particular need because the metal is used as the basis for gold-plated medals, are insufficient, according to ministry officials.

However, there is a growing tide of Twitter commentary critical of the plan to get that silver. "Now they want us to provide the metals. It's creepy," one tweet said, in an apparent reference to the government's wartime metal donation drive. The education ministry's effort to have universities call off classes during the games so that students can serve as volunteers has similarly been compared to war support efforts.

A proposal to introduce daylight saving time to avoid the summer heat during competitions has also been attacked as akin to wartime mobilization because it would place an enormous burden on computer programmers required to adjust software and force workers to stay on the job longer. A call to ease the heat by spraying water in certain neighborhoods was likened to the desperate wartime plan to counter an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands with bamboo spears.

Scholars and academics are particularly angry at the use of schools and students for the projects. "The mentality to utilize school organizations is really scary," one tweet said, while another commented, "Don't increase the burden on people on the front line of education."

The amount of precious metals contained in a used electronic device is negligible, but a huge number of these items, which are said to be lying dormant in people's homes, are called "urban mines." The project to "dig" out the metals to make Tokyo 2020 medals was received warmly when it was announced two years ago.

Komei Harada, an honorary researcher at the National Institute for Materials Science who proposed the idea, said the project team in charge of making the medals had failed to set up a system or create an atmosphere allowing the public to cooperate easily. According to Harada, recycling small home electronics produced 2.3 metric tons of silver in 2016. "What is needed for the medals is to double that figure, and that amount can be collected if people are willing to support the drive," he said.

However, unlike the 1964 Tokyo Games, the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics is tied to commercial sponsors, and it is difficult for municipal governments and recycling companies that are not games' sponsors to use the Olympics and Paralympics name to promote precious metals collection. Under the environment ministry plan, however, elementary and junior high schools will have to foot the bill. "People may come to dislike the games or recycling," said a worried Harada.

Some internet commenters assert that buying silver is cheaper than "urban mining." A Tokyo Games public relations official countered this by saying that it is not a matter of cost. "The medal project was designed to promote a sense of participation and the culture of recycling," explained the official.

But what is the organizing committee going to do if there is simply not enough silver? "It's not like we cannot make medals. There is an established system for procurement," the official said, but did not venture to detail how the system works, saying, "We cannot answer a hypothetical question."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa, General Digital News Center)

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