Dell Eyes $63 Billion E-Waste Recycling Opportunity: Q&A

By Bryony Collins, BloombergNEF. This article first appeared on the Bloomberg Terminal. 

Dell Technologies Inc. has “saved almost $2 million in the last five years” from using closed-loop recycled plastics in the manufacture of more than 120 of its products and aims to expand the program, said Louise Koch, corporate sustainability director EMEA at the computer and IT service company, in an interview with BloombergNEF.

Around 10,000 metric tons of closed-loop plastics have been used in Dell products such as desktops and tablets since the program began five years ago, Koch said. Dell offers a “take-back system” for electronic waste from business or public customers in more than 75 countries to help companies wipe data and dispose of their waste responsibly.

More than 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally and of this, just 20% is ultimately recycled, said Koch. Around 50 billion pounds ($63 billion) of material value is lost annually from “electronics not being disposed of in the right way”, she added.

Dell is working to tackle this problem by helping customers to recycle, or refurbish and resell their old electronics, and by developing a commercial supply chain for collecting and processing ocean plastics in Indonesia. By 2025, Dell aims to use 80 metric tons of ocean plastic in its packaging every year, Koch said.

Q: How can the problem of e-waste be tackled – where does most of it end up?

A: Each year more than 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally. A study by Dell shows that in one ton of motherboards, there is up to 800 times more gold than in one ton of gold ore from the earth. So there is a lot of value being lost in electronics not being disposed of in the right way.

It’s estimated that the value of electronic waste is roughly 50 billion pounds in materials lost per year, [according to the World Economic Forum report: A New Circular Vision for Electronics].

Roughly 30% of us have electronics like mobile phones or laptops lying unused in our homes – which are resources that should be put into the recycling systems.

At Dell, we pay a fee for every product we sell to contribute to the cost of financing public collection and recycling systems [in accordance with EU law].

However, business customers or public organizations are very sensitive to data security – they want to know exactly where the waste went – which a public recycling system doesn’t provide.

So we have developed the world’s largest electronic take-back system in more than 75 countries – where we offer a paid-for service to business or public customers to wipe the data on premises and to recycle it according to transparency and responsibility laws. The customer receives a full report saying exactly where it went.

Back in 2009, Dell was one of the first companies to ban the export of electronic waste to developing countries. The challenges come when people don’t use proper recycling systems and there is illegal handling of those resources.

Q: What is the proportion of electronic waste that gets recycled, either publicly or by private systems?

A: Roughly 20% of e-waste globally gets recycled [and the vast majority of the remainder goes undocumented].

By 2020, Dell aims to take back roughly 900,000 metric tons of electronic waste, and we met that goal earlier this year.

[Dell started using] post-consumer recycled plastics ten years ago. Since there, there have been old water bottles in Dell computers and monitors – including recycled plastics and carbon fiber.

Five years ago, we introduced closed-loop plastics – which is taking plastics from our take-back program and shipping the plastic to China where it is used in more than 120 different product models. Since we started, we’ve used 10,000 tons of closed-loop recycled plastics.

The maximum content of recycled plastics we have in our products is 30% – which is in some of our OptiPlex desktop computers. It varies between 5 and 30%.

[We have the closed-loop recycling program in the U.S. currently] and we are looking to expand it to Europe, but it is more difficult here due to the legislation for shipment of used electronics across many nation states.

Q: What is the advantage to Dell of developing a circular supply chain?

A: There is a cost saving on closed loop plastics – we saved almost $2 million in the last five years from doing so – enough to make it worthwhile.

The recycled materials we use for our packaging also come at a lower cost than virgin materials, depending on oil price. Including ocean plastic.

We have a responsibility as one of the largest IT companies globally to make sure we are doing our part in solving this huge challenge with used electronics. We are concerned about resource scarcity of some precious metals and minerals, and the need to build a circular economy.

Q: How can a typical household recycle its e-waste with Dell?

A: We have a program where consumers can ship back their e-waste by signing up on our website and returning the device in a box to one of our recycling partners. Dell has occasional campaigns where it hands out money-off vouchers to consumers who participate in this program.

Q: Do you expect the high turnover of electronic products to speed up or slow down?

A: From a business perspective in Europe, there is an increasing desire to extend the life period of products. We have customers looking to extend the lifetime of Dell computers to 4 or 5 years, instead of around 3 years.

In our take-back program, if the equipment is non-functioning, then we recycle it, but if it’s still working, then we refurbish and resell it on the second-hand market on behalf of the business customer.

We also help businesses donate old equipment to charities or schools. So there’s different ways of extending lifetime.

Q: Dell has reduced the energy intensity of its products by 60% since 2012, and you want to reach 80% by 2020. How have you done this?

We take a lifecycle perspective in designing our products. So in the early stages – designing for energy efficiency, both in making the product and in its performance. Then we design for reusability and recyclability – so a more modular design instead of glues and adhesives, reducing the types of plastic we use, and standardizing parts.

We have another goal of 100% sustainable packaging in 2020 – and we are 95% of the way there by weight. We’ve been using materials like bamboo and recycled cardboard to replace plastics. And we’ve also started introducing ocean plastics.

Q: Where has Dell got ocean plastic collection programs in place?

We’re developing a new supply chain in Indonesia to collect ocean plastic. Using geo-mapping, we found that most ocean plastic pollution originates from ten rivers in Asia – so we’re working in four different locations in Indonesia, with local communities and NGOs to collect plastics and send it into a local processing facility. They process the material and we buy it to use in the packaging of our laptops.

In 2018, we founded a partnership called NextWave Plastics, together with the organization Lonely Whale and seven other founding companies including General Motors and Ikea. We commit to reduce the use of non-essential plastics and to find ways to introduce ocean-bound plastics into products and packaging. So we use it in our packaging and maybe someday in our products as well.

The aim is to develop the world’s first fully commercial supply chain supply chain for collecting, processing and bringing back ocean plastics.
Last year, we used around 10 metric tons of ocean plastic in our packaging, and by 2025 we aim to use 80 tons per year. The goal for Next Wave is to collect 33 million pounds of ocean plastic annually – equivalent to 66 million water bottles – in five years’ time.

Q: How are you working with governments to drive more sustainable IT service procurement?

A recent report by the European Commission showed that 55% of all public tenders in Europe are evaluated on lowest price only, and the rest are assessed by a mix of quality and service, with very little [focus] on sustainability. We see that as well in the tenders we respond to as a company.

Public tenders can be universities, schools, hospitals or government offices that are seeking new IT equipment. They specify the technical criteria but often don’t stipulate sustainability, or if they do – they don’t give it a large enough weighting.

We do see some positive development in the U.K. Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] put out a tender last year with a 40% weight on sustainability – and they are now hosting a working group on a sustainable IT lifecycle.

Our business is roughly 50/50 public, private. The total European public procurement budget annually is 1.8 trillion euros ($2 trillion). For the IT industry alone, it’s expected to amount to 45 billion euros in 2021.

Since public organizations are such large users of IT, it’s very important that they use existing services and systems – not only sending it straight to recycling, but considering second-life also.

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