Olympic medals forged from humble beginnings
If Lindsey Vonn wins a gold, silver or bronze during the Winter Olympics, the U.S. skier will be wearing metal recycled from old computers and cell phones around her neck.
More than 6,000 pounds of metal went into the medallions that will be awarded to top athletes during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic games. The metals were provided by Teck Resources Ltd., Canada’s largest base-metals supplier. Some of the gold, silver and copper came from discarded electronics.
This is the first time that “e-waste” has been used in Olympic medals, the games’ organizers said. For Teck, the medals are an opportunity to showcase a 4-year-old recycling effort at the company’s smelter in Trail, B.C., which is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Spokane.
Each year, the smelter recovers metals from 3 million pounds of obsolete electronics. Old circuit boards, television sets, computer monitors and cell phones are shredded and heated to recover trace amounts of gold, silver and copper.
Without the recovery effort, many of the appliances would end up in landfills, said David Parker, Teck’s vice president of sustainability.
“We wanted…to help people appreciate that metals can be recycled over and over again. They’re a precious resource,” he said.
Each of the medallions weighs just over a pound. First-place finishers get medals that are 92.5 percent silver, with a gold-plated finish. The silver medals are also 92.5 percent silver. Bronze metals are made from a copper alloy.
Aboriginal artwork of orca whales and ravens are etched on the medallions, produced at the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. The mint paid Teck $1.24 million for the gold, copper and silver.
In Spokane, Teck’s Trail smelter is probably best known as a historic polluter of the Columbia River. For a century, the company discharged tons of smelter waste known as “slag” into the river each day. The dumping stopped in 1994, when Canadian studies showed that slag was harmful to aquatic life.
Last year, Teck agreed to spend about $1 million to remove slag from a beach near Northport, Wash. But Teck and members of the Colville Tribe remain embroiled in a legal battle over a larger cleanup of the river. The state of Washington is an intervener in the case.
Teck’s Parker said the company is committed to sustainable practices. The Trail smelter has the capacity to expand its electronics recycling program by 33 percent, and hopes to do so in the future, he said.