The Rio 2016 Olympic medals (photo by Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia)

The Rio 2016 Olympic medals (photo by Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia)

Athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympics will be taking home bits of recycled mirrors, car parts, and X-ray plates in their medals as part of design aimed at sustainability. Gold was mined without the use of harmful mercury, and both the silver and bronze medals are 30 percent recycled materials, each suspended from a ribbon that’s half reused plastic bottles.

As the organizers put it, the medals issued by the Brazilian Mint represent “the relationship between the strengths of Olympic heroes and the forces of nature.” Each of the 2,488 medals emblazoned with laurel leaves around the Rio logo comes with a round case carved from sustainable freijó wood, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). When winners take their awards, they’ll receive them from a tray of certified Curupixá wood, and stand on podiums built from organic materials, which are to be repurposed as furniture following the games.

The Rio 2016 gold medal (photo by Ian Jones/IOC)

The Rio 2016 gold medal (photo by Ian Jones/IOC) (click to enlarge)

Pollution has been a major concern leading up to the Rio de Janeiro games, such as the sewage tainting the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon that’s hosting the rowing competitions, and trash obstacles for the sailing teams in the Guanabara Bay. Friday’s Opening Ceremony included a major feature on climate change and the environment, including video projections of rising sea levels due to global warming, and the procession of athletes planting 207 species of trees (one for every delegation) in mirrored boxes for a future Athlete’s Forest. The planters were then rearranged into the shape of the Olympic rings, with trees bursting out, shooting green confetti into the air.

Since the 1928 Amsterdam games, the character of the Summer Olympics medals has remained fairly consistent, with Nike on one side, and a custom design on the other. Until 2004, with the Athens games, Nike was seated by the Roman Colosseum, but the Greeks replaced that controversial vista with the historically appropriate Panathinaiko Stadium. Despite the consistency of the Greek Goddess of Victory, the medals have a dynamic visual history, such as at the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia, where select gold medals were embedded with a piece of meteorite. Vancouver showcased First Nations-inspired art in 2010, and jade inlay adorned the medals for the 2008 Beijing games.

Rio’s Paralympic Game medals also have a new design. An interior device made from discarded material at the Brazilian Mint generates a noise when shaken, a feature aimed at visually impaired athletes, with the strength of the sound depending on the place (gold being the loudest). The slogan for Rio 2016 is “A New World,” and this, along with other aspects of the games, argues for a more sustainable and accessible future.

You can watch the process of making the medals in the video from Rio 2016 below:

YouTube video

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...