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Dell Leads Industry in Reusing Computer Plastic

If parts of your new Dell computer look strikingly familiar, it’s because you might well have seen—and touched them—before.

Why? The Round Rock, Texas-based enterprise is leading the industry in efforts to recycle computer plastic. From last July through March, the company has incorporated 2.89 million pounds of that plastic e-waste into its OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One, OptiPlex 3020 and 13 other desktops and monitors.

“Our attitude is, sooner or later this will be mandated,” Trisa Thompson, Dell’s vice president of corporate responsibility tells Waste360 in an interview. “Let’s get ahead of this.”

Trisa Thompson

Thompson was a presenter at an early May conference in Washington, D.C. called “The Circular Economy: Unleashing New Business Value.” It was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Dell debuted what it calls a closed loop pilot project last summer by partnering with Wistron GreenTech. In a nutshell, computer plastics are collected from take-back programs Dell has set up in 78 countries and then shipped to China, where they are shredded, melted and then blended with virgin plastic before being molded into new parts. Recycled plastic content averages 35 percent.

One of those U.S. programs is Dell Reconnect, a 10-year-old collaboration with Goodwill that allows free drop-off of any brand of computers and affiliated equipment at 2,000 participating locations.

Simply put, closed-loop systems are the backbone of a circular economy. The goal of the latter is to recycle and reuse materials continually, rather than trash them after a single use. Creating new computers from old parts allows Dell to conserve resources, reduce e-waste and slice carbon emissions by 11 percent compared with using virgin plastics. Dell would not provide financial specifics other than to say it has not lost money on the venture.

“We want to make sure we’re not greenwashing,” Thompson says. “We want to make sure it’s really sustainable.”

That attitude is driving Dell’s goal, a piece of its 21-part 2020 Legacy of Good program, to use 50 million pounds of recycled-content plastic and other similar materials in its products within the next five years.

In this country, computers and other electronic waste make up between 1 and 2 percent of a total municipal solid waste stream that weighed in at 251 million tons in 2012, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, it wasn’t all landfilled. Americans recycled 65 million tons of that trash and composted another 21 million tons of it.

For years, the Oakland, Calif.-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition has prodded computer manufacturers to recycle plastics in a closed-loop fashion.

“Somebody had to be the leader here and clearly it is Dell,” says Barbara Kyle, the coalition’s national coordinator. “It’s a big deal because it’s an important step for this industry to manage the custody of its plastic content.

“We applauded them when they did this last summer and we continue to be happy to see they are taking this seriously and doing it in a meaningful way.”

Dell earns kudos from Kyle and her ilk for being out front in creating products of the same value and branching beyond “downcycling,” which translates to turning recycled plastic into lower-grade products such as chairs, benches or decking that are thrown away when they wear out.

“That’s temporary recycling,” Kyle says. “True sustainability is plastics being used very many times without adding a ton more virgin content. Infinite recycling is the ideal but I don’t know if that’s physically possible with all plastics.”

Kyle and her colleagues are curious if Dell has more leeway to elevate its green efforts since founder and chief executive Michael Dell took his company private almost two years ago.

Not having to answer to number-crunchers with quarterly earnings “allows you to have a longer-term view but you still have to save money or bring in revenue,” Thompson says. “It helps having a CEO who is engaged.”

“Michael cares,” she says. “His name is on the box and all of our computer parts. He doesn’t want to see any of it sitting in a landfill in Kenya or anywhere else.”

Dell prides itself on designing for recyclability. For some time, it has incorporated plastics derived from water bottles and other sources into its computers. Dell’s continued appetite for plastic waste is evidently insatiable because company officials are talking with the automotive and airline industries about collecting their leftovers.

“Those conversations are happening,” Thompson says. “We’re always looking for partnerships. Our message is, ‘Bring us your plastic.’”

What might the next source be?

Dipping into that heartbreaking, aquatic-life threatening, ocean clog known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. It’s loaded with plastics that just might be repurposed as keyboards, monitors or even hard drives.

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