2 Artists Want G-7 Leaders To End E-Waste. So They Sculpted Them Out Of Trash

Jun 10, 2021
Originally published on June 11, 2021 12:13 am

CARBIS BAY, England — Security is tight in the English county of Cornwall as President Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven – seven of the world's wealthiest countries — prepare to meet for a weekend summit beginning Friday.

But if you want to catch a firsthand glimpse of Biden, Germany's Angela Merkel or the other powerful politicians, your best bet may be a two-story sculpture that replicates their likenesses using electronic waste in the hills overlooking the resort where they are meeting.

The sculpture, which is drawing large crowds, is arranged like Mount Rushmore — but with the G-7 leaders instead of U.S. presidents.

The sculptors, artists Joe Rush and Alex Wreckage, have dubbed it "Mount Recyclemore." Rush says he hopes the leaders spotted it on their flights to Cornwall and that it encourages them to address the world's avalanche of e-waste.

"The message is we have to find a way of dealing with this electrical waste that we're producing, because we haven't got ways of repairing it and we haven't got ways of getting rid of it," Rush says.

(From left) Italy's Mario Draghi, Canada's Justin Trudeau, Germany's Angela Merkel and Joe Biden of the U.S. are among the seven leaders depicted in Mount Recyclemore, created by artists Joe Rush and Alex Wreckage.
Jon Super / AP

The world produces about 53 million tons of e-waste annually and that volume is expected to double by 2050, according to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the International Telecommunication Union.

Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade says that most people in the developed world associate e-waste with unsafe practices in developing countries.

But he says Mount Recyclemore "forces viewers to consider e-waste as something that's local, immediate and very much theirs. Addressing questions of electronic refuse will in part require consumers in developed countries to tell manufacturers to make more durable and repairable devices. Artworks like this one are a starting point for the discussion."

The sculpture, which took 12 people to build over six weeks, bears a remarkable likeness to the world leaders it depicts. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's famously unkempt hair includes a jumble of old telephone receivers hanging by their cords. Biden's skin is a carpet of green circuit boards and his lips are made of rows of the battered backs of Samsung and Apple smartphones.

Joanie Willett, who teaches politics at the University of Exeter in Cornwall, says she thinks the most thought-provoking touch is the circuit boards that make up Biden's face.

"Because these are things that we don't even see," she says. "It's totally invisible and we don't give any thought when we're using the stuff."

The sculpture provoked lots of comments about the environment among the scores of people who gathered there as dusk arrived Friday evening. There were also meta moments as people — with no apparent sense of irony — used their smartphones to shoot pictures of sculptures made with old smartphones.

The installation is not only a striking piece of art and environmental activism, but it's also a smart piece of marketing. It was sponsored by musicMagpie, a British company that buys old electronics and refurbishes them for resale, and its U.S. brand, Decluttr.

Liam Howley, the company's chief marketing officer, says the company buys about 1,500 tech items and 40,000 media items — including old CDs and DVDs — each day in the United Kingdom — and its materials were used to create Mount Recyclemore.

"We're trying to raise awareness, make sure people know about it, can act on it and encourage better behavior to refurbish, recycle, reuse," Howley says.

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As President Biden and the other G-7 leaders from some of the world's wealthiest economies prepare to meet for a weekend summit in the English county of Cornwall, one of the biggest attractions is a two-story sculpture that has emerged from the hills nearby. It's a reproduction of the faces of all seven leaders in the style of Mount Rushmore. But instead of stone, the sculptor's material is discarded electronics. And he has named his work Mount Recyclemore. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is in Cornwall and joins us now. Hey, Frank.


CHANG: Hi. So are you, like, literally next to the sculpture right now? (Laughter) What does it look like?

LANGFITT: It's fascinating. And it's also become this big tourist attraction. There must be 60 or 70 people here staring at it. And what the artist has done is he's basically taken - I'll give you an example. If you look at Boris Johnson, his face is made of old Samsung phone backings.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: And he's got all these old phones that is supposed to be his hair, including all these wires. And then right in front of me is Joe Biden. And Joe Biden's skin basically is all these green circuit boards from inside computers.

CHANG: Whoa.

LANGFITT: And not - you know, just across the bay is where the G-7 is meeting starting tomorrow morning.

CHANG: I'm just amazed that these faces are recognizable.

LANGFITT: Oh, yeah, very recognizable. I mean, everybody can tell exactly who these people are.

CHANG: (Laughter) And what do you take is the sculptor's political point here?

LANGFITT: Well, I think it's a very - it's an environmental point. And I was just talking to him on the phone before you and I started talking. His name's Joe Rush. And this is how he put it.

JOE RUSH: The message is we have to find a way of dealing with this electrical waste that we're producing because we haven't got ways of taking it apart again. We haven't got ways of repairing it. And we haven't got ways of getting rid of it. It's not down to (ph) one nation to give all their waste to another nation. It's a world problem.

CHANG: And how about all the people taking this visual in right now? How are they reacting?

LANGFITT: It's really interesting. I think people are fascinated by it. Obviously, it's - artistically it's very, very interesting. But in terms of the environmental message that Joe was just mentioning, I mean, I think it really resonates with people. I was talking to a woman named Joanie Willett. She teaches politics. And I asked her what struck her the most.

JOANIE WILLETT: For me, it's the Joe Biden circuit boards because those are things that we don't even see. It's totally invisible. And we don't give it any thought when we're using this stuff.

LANGFITT: And people out here are taking pictures - it's very interesting - of people like Boris Johnson's skin of old phones with their own cellphone. So it feels a little bit meta right now.

CHANG: Well, what about the G-7 leaders? Have they said anything about recycling yet?

LANGFITT: They haven't spoken specifically about that. But they are - the environment is a huge issue, and especially climate change because the window is closing on trying to prevent even more damage. And certainly that's going to be a big topic of conversation this weekend.

CHANG: That is NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt joining us from Cornwall, England. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Ailsa.

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