E-Waste Activists Crash One of the World’s Biggest Tech Parties

Crowds likely did a double-take this week as they streamed into Mobile World Congress, the largest mobile tech conference on the planet. And not because of the new gadgets. Activists took over the sidewalk in front of the MWC to (literally) illustrate the environmental impact of e-waste.

E-waste activists drew sidewalk art at Mobile World Congress
E-waste activists take over the pavement at the Mobile World Congress

As far as messages go, this one ain’t subtle. The 3D pavement art opens a chasm of e-waste under the feet of attendees. Figures deep inside scavenge amongst the world’s high-tech refuse—as more and more old and broken devices tumble in.

“People love technology; the upgrades, the unboxing, the new features,” says Piotr Barczak of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). The non-profit organized the protest—without the support of MWC. “But there’s a dirty side to our tech obsession: trainloads of broken tech, trundling out of our cities and towards hellish waste dumps in Africa and Asia.”

He’s not wrong. E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world—and it shows no sign of slowing. We love our gadgets. Sure, sometimes they’re gimmicky (we’re looking at you, Juicero). But they’re also exciting—every new release comes with the promise of possibilities realized. And while we’re all still waiting for hoverboards and flying cars, showcases like CES and MWC have that breathless expectation of sci-fi made a little more real. Of the future getting a little closer.

E-waste activists campaigning at Mobile World Congress
E-waste activists change the conversation at the Mobile World Congress

It’s no coincidence that the MWC’s slogan this year is “Creating a Better Future.” But technology isn’t a clever hat trick. We can’t pull mobile devices out of a jaunty top hat, and we certainly can’t make them disappear when we’re done.

Tech giants are great at drumming up excitement for their yearly release cycles (Samsung, by the way, announced the Galaxy S9 at the MWC on Sunday). But they aren’t all that great at dealing with the environmental impact of those devices. Simply put, our high tech devices use up too many resources, don’t last long enough, and are difficult to recycle (if they even wind up at a recycler—because much of the time, they don’t).

Tech undeniably makes our lives better—but tech also needs to do better. That’s why we advocate for tech that is designed to last and designed to be recycled. Over 100 million people every single year come to iFixit to learn how to repair electronics—because most gadget makers refuse to release that information to owners. And we are vocal supporters of Right to Repair legislation, which would require electronics makers to release repair information and sell repair parts for their products. Of course, companies like Apple aren’t exactly thrilled by Right to Repair—and they’ve so far managed to stop it from becoming a law.

“Today we are hitting back at the firms attending Mobile World Congress and challenging them to clean up their act,” Barczak of the EBB said. They’re not trying to shame attendees with their 3D art—they’re trying to demand change:

“Firms need to go beyond pledges and achieve genuine closed-loop recycling. They should design for repair, with upgradeable parts to extend their useful life. They should support, not fight the repair movement and legal rights. They should make spare parts available and provide software support for older devices.”

To that we say, “Amen, sister.” And by the way, if you’re inclined to think that expensive electronics should last a lot longer than they do, head on over to—they’re leading the charge for Right to Repair in the US. Find your home state on the list and tell your lawmakers that you support the legislation. If enough people come together to support Right to Repair in the nearly 20 states where it’s been introduced this year—well, that’s something the tech giants won’t be able to ignore.