Dell designs its products with the end in mind.
In other words, the company designs its PCs and components to be easily reused and upgraded, thus extending the life of the product. The products are also designed for recyclability, so that when they do reach end of life, they can be easily disassembled and recycled.
Scott O’Connell, Dell’s director of environmental affairs, says this design for recycling strategy is part of the company’s Legacy of Good plan, its corporate social responsibility roadmap, which includes circular economy initiatives that aim to design the concept of waste out of the system.
“We look at the context of our product design all the way through recycling and moving materials back into new products as enabling circular economy approaches within our own product lifestyle — but we think there’s even greater opportunity to apply that thinking within our industry and our customers,” O’Connell said in an interview.
As part of its Legacy of Good plan, Dell has set goals to use 50 million pounds of recycled-content plastic and other sustainable materials in its products by 2020 and also to recover 2 billion pounds of used electronics in the same time frame.
To accomplish these goals, Dell has consumer and commercial recycling and resale programs in 83 countries and territories that take back any brand of used electronics.
And according to the company’s most recent Legacy of Good update, Dell recovered 168 million pounds of used electronics in fiscal year 2016, putting it at 80 percent of its 2020 goals. Also in fiscal year 2016 Dell used more than 14.1 million pounds of recycled plastics in its products, meaning it has now achieved 72 percent progress toward the 2020 goal.
“But if we’re going to take back and recover 2 billion pounds of electronics, what are we going to do with the stuff that comes back? That led us to look at this feedstock of plastics from that 2 billion pounds that we could close the loop,” O’Connell said.
In 2014 Dell built its first computer from UL-Environment certified closed-loop recycled plastics — an industry first — and last year began using recycled carbon fiber in its products.
In addition to using recycled materials, Dell also works with its engineers to design products that can be easily repaired or recycled.
“We routinely take our design engineers in to the recyclers that we work with to get real-world feedback on good design and bad design,” O’Connell said.
This includes things like modularity, making the components inside Dell computers easily removable with standardized parts, and making the products easy to disassemble with common tools.
“Even something that may seem simple like removing the number of screws on the bottom of a laptop,” O’Connell said. “If we can reduce it from 10 to five, we can make it easier to repair, reuse and close it back up.”
Glues and adhesives can make products more challenging to recycle, so Dell uses other methods such as snap fits, and uses only paints that are compatible with recycling.
Dell offers a leasing option for its corporate customers, allowing them to lease products instead of purchasing them. O’Connell says when these products are returned to Dell, if they can be easily repaired and resold the company makes more money versus disassembling the products and selling them as component parts.
“The business case really is what can we do to make the design robust enough so that we can get the maximum value from resale and reuse,” he said. “The other thing is time. When recyclers do tear down and disassemble products that take time. It is more time and cost effective to get the product torn down as quickly as possible.”
O’Connell won’t talk financial specifics of how much its circular economy strategies have saved the company. But he says when Dell initially launched its closed-loop plastics effort in 2014, using its own recycled plastics that it had collected through its take-back programs cost less than using other types of recycled plastics, such as recycled plastic water bottles.
“We found the supply chain demand for those types of products were being stressed, so we said if we’re going to revoke 2 billion pounds of used electronics, why won’t we tap into our own feedstock? We’ve been able to show a slight cost reduction from closed-loop plastics compared to other types of plastics that are out there, and we think with scale and volume that will continue to be the case.”