As one of the largest computer technologies vendors in the world, and the second largest non-oil company operating in Texas, Dell has a significant impact on the generation of e-waste. While a modest global e-waste recovery and recycling market has emerged in the last decade, over 52 million tons of damaged, old, or unwanted electronics are discarded every year. E-waste is comprised of many valuable materials, from plastics to precious metals; in the U.S. alone, over $60 million in gold and silver are lost due yearly to low recycling rates for cell phones. Dell acknowledges a responsibility as a global leader and environmental steward to reduce e-waste by taking a comprehensive approach to responsible product design and manufacturing.
A central principle to the “Design for Environment” approach is the circular economy model, which reduces natural resource depletion and the creation of waste and emissions by designing long-lasting products with easily-recycled, sustainable materials. This stands in contrast to the linear model, in which goods are produced, used and then disposed of; the valuable materials comprising these products end up outside the economy as waste, necessitating further raw material harvesting.
Responding to growing demand for products with smaller environmental footprints, Dell pioneered their closed-loop plastics and gold recycling streams in 2014 and 2018, respectively. By taking a critical look at the full life cycle of their products, paired with innovative worldwide recycling initiatives, Dell has committed to keeping materials in use for as long as possible, thereby reducing waste, the company’s carbon emissions, and capital costs.
Project Description & History
A key step in the closed-loop process is designing products specifically with recyclability and sustainability in mind. Dell products are designed to last, with modular, standardized components that are easily repaired, upgraded, and recycled, and made with environmentally responsible materials and minimal adhesives and coatings. Dell is well on their way to meeting goals for zero-waste packaging by 2020, thanks to thoughtful design and material use, plus company-wide recycling initiatives.
Dell offers recycling infrastructure in 83 countries and territories, making it easy for consumers worldwide to recycle their Dell products. The Dell Reconnect program allows consumers to donate used computer equipment to any participating Goodwill location; systems are refurbished and resold for affordable prices while non-functional equipment enters back into Dell’s e-waste recycling stream. Dell also works with businesses along their supply chain to standardize recycling and other environmental efforts.
A closed-loop manufacturing process is defined by repeatedly recycling materials within the same industry or product. The plastic e-waste reclaimed through Dell’s recycling programs is disassembled, sorted, shipped back to manufacturers, and/or sold on commodities markets for reuse, supplying materials for over 90 different Dell products and closing the “loop”. In partnership with Texas-based Wistron GreenTech, Dell designed the industry’s first closed-loop gold recycling supply chain in 2018. Recycled waste is sent to Wistron’s facility in McKinney, Texas, the materials are processed to recover the gold, then the reclaimed gold is sent to Taiwan to use in creating new motherboard components. By employing the closed-loop processes, Dell hopes to use a total of 100 million pounds of recycled content in its products by 2020.
Dell’s goals for implementing responsible business practices include both environmental and social aspects of their manufacturing processes. Gold recycling greatly reduces need for virgin ore mining, which in some cases is associated with environmental risks and human rights abuses; Dell’s closed-loop gold process avoids 41x the social impacts of gold mining. Dell is also a Responsible Business Alliance member.
Dell’s closed-loop plastics process yields a capital net benefit of 44%, ~1.3 mil annually (TruCost), while their gold recycling process will avoid ~$3.68 mil in natural capital costs. By improving recycling infrastructure, Dell encourages consumers to improve recycling rates of valuable e-waste, reducing costs along the supply chain.
Dell has made strides to meet their goal of zero-waste packaging by 2020; they also seek to reclaim some of the millions of tons of e-waste discarded annually by improving ease of and access to recycling for Dell products. Closed-loop gold and plastics recycling causes 99% less environmental damage than gold ore mining, while reusing up to 24 million pounds of plastics. Dell products are designed and evaluated to meet IEC 62635 recyclability standards and are rated as highly recyclable (Design for Environment, 2018). Dell also reports carbon footprint assessments for many of their products, to better identify areas for improvement and minimize manufacturing impacts. As Dell continues to shift towards the circular economy model, it plans to expand closed-loop recycling to include additional waste products and use recycled materials in more products over the next 10 years.