“We’ve made a really good run at making electronics recycling convenient and easy, but there is an opportunity for the entire IT industry." — Dell's Scott O'Connell
Dell continues to make headway on its plans to dramatically increase the amount of repurposed and reclaimed content in its supply chain, with a goal of 100 million pounds of reused materials in its products by 2020 (double its original goal of 50 million, which it achieved in 2017). Its model could provide the entire industry with methods, practices and — through collaboration — opportunities to reduce the growing global e-waste problem and shift towards a more circular economy in the electronics sector.
In fact, Dell has been a leader in addressing e-waste for a decade, since the launch of the Dell Reconnect program more than a decade ago. In 2011, the company partnered with Goodwill to establish more than 2,000 e-waste recycling centers across the United States which, importantly, accepted used electronics from all manufacturers, not just Dell. And in 2014, it launched a partnership with the United Nations to tackle e-waste in the developing world.
“Dell has the world’s largest tech recycling program, in over 75 countries and territories around the world,” Scott O'Connell, Dell’s Director of Environmental Affairs, told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview.
According to the Global E-Waste Monitor, in 2016, a staggering 44.7 million metric tons (8 percent) of e-waste were generated from 2014, with the vast majority ending up in landfills, where it can leech dangerous toxins. As more people get Internet access and purchase phones, laptops and other electronic devices, this figure will continue to grow ever larger.
Increasing recycling rates is one part of the solution, but it alone is not enough. Ultimately, we need a circular economy for electronics, where materials are used in a closed-loop system, with little or no waste ending up in landfills. Dell understands this, and hence its focus is not just on increasing the amount of e-waste that is recycled, but also figuring out how to bring more of what it collects back into its supply chain and its products.
In fact, since 2013, Dell has used 73 million pounds of recycled materials in its products. To do this, it had to work both internally — to work to design products to include recycled materials without losing any quality or functionality — and also through external partnerships.
“The technology to recover materials from products is a key challenge,” O'Connell said. “We found, in the early days, [the technology] wasn’t good enough to produce a clean-enough plastic, so we had to go through a lot of trial and error to get the technology to work to achieve a material that was viable enough, while not sacrificing anything from an aesthetic or performance perspective.”
The good news is, this knowledge can now be transferred to other e-waste materials. Dell has looked beyond plastics — in 2015, the company announced an industry-first use of recycled carbon fiber; and it is now also recovering gold, a key material in many electronics, some of which is now being **turned into jewelry**.
The question, according to O'Connell, is, “what are the other critical materials in electronics that it makes sense to drive closed-loop solutions around?”
There is still a long way to go to close the loop on electronics waste. Despite Dell’s efforts, the global e-waste recycling rate is still only around 20 percent. Dell, while a major player, is just one of dozens of companies, and the only way to both increase e-waste collection — and close the loop — is to work together.
“We’ve made a really good run at making electronics recycling convenient and easy, but the total rate is small, so we think there is an opportunity for the entire IT industry,” O'Connell said. “That recycling rate should be higher than it is.”
Other companies are taking action, too, including electronics giant Apple, which has ambitiously pledged to use 100 percent recycled materials in its products. There is another benefit for companies that move forward on reuse — consumers are, increasingly, demanding it: “We’re seeing our customers raising their expectations with regards to sustainable products,” O’Connell said.
Creating a closed loop for electronics will require continued** innovation and investment in design**, recycling technology, recovery and supply chain management. But with some of the giants already leading the way, the path towards an e-waste-free future is possible.