Dell’s Plastics-Recycling Program Earns Green Electronics Award

Only about 40 percent of used electronics are currently collected for recycling, and much of that is "down-cycled" into materials of lesser quality, but the computer company aims to change that.
Changing technologies and falling prices both contribute to the mounting problem of electronic waste. | Adobe Stock

Using recycled plastics in new computer components and working to eliminate waste and close its manufacturing loop has earned Dell a new award that seeks to inspire creative solutions in the further "greening" of electronics.

The Green Electronics Council announced the winner of the inaugural Catalyst Award on 23 September at its Emerging Green Conference in Portland, Oregon, an international gathering to discuss challenges and opportunities in the field of sustainable electronics. The 2015 award, whose judging process was administered by AAAS, recognized efforts to advance a circular economy — an economic system that actively works to eliminate waste from the design, manufacture, handling, and use of goods.

With only about 40% of used electronics collected for recycling, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and many recycled products converted into materials of lesser quality, Dell was recognized for a recycling system that uses plastics derived from old computers in its new products. 

With this closed-loop system, Dell uses fewer natural resources by "leveraging consumer recycling programs to recover waste electronics, and the plastics from those products are being recycled into new Dell products," said Scott O'Connell, the company's director of environmental affairs.

The Green Electronics Council enlisted the services of the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program (RCP) to coordinate the judging. For nearly 20 years, RCP has helped organizations engaged in science and technology activities to improve their research capacity and competitiveness. RCP designs and coordinates expert review of large science and technology initiatives, organizes peer-reviewed competitions, holds workshops and conferences, and implements multi-element programs that advance research competitiveness internationally.

"The Green Electronics Council was looking to build capacity in green electronics by honoring thought leaders and highlighting them as an example of the good work that can be done in this space, making this project a great match for our office," said Christine Burgess, RCP project director.

For the Catalyst Award, RCP drew upon its broad network of experts to convene a multidisciplinary judging committee and mediated the judging process.

The committee, which evaluated both qualitative and quantitative evidence to select the award winner, brought together "people with a deep technical understanding of the green electronics field, experts in the circular economy, and individuals who are bridging those worlds," said Burgess.

The committee recognized Dell for its OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One desktop computer, the first computer to use UL Environment-certified, closed-loop, recycled plastic from old electronics. Since 2014, Dell's closed-loop supply chain has used 4.2 million pounds of plastics recycled from old electronic devices in 34 new products. Since January 2013, Dell has also used more than 21 million pounds of post-consumer recycled plastics, which are recovered from goods like water bottles rather than electronics.

"The Catalyst Awards recognize practical projects whose impact can inspire further innovation in the electronics space," said Kent Snyder, chairman of the Green Electronics Council's board, in a news release.

"Plastics is one place to start," O'Connell said. "What about metals or other types of materials? How can we reclaim and recover [them] from electronics and put them back to work in new electronics or in other industries that may use those same materials?"

O'Connell said that Dell is also using packaging materials recycled from agricultural waste, such as wheat straw, in its efforts to accelerate innovation-goals echoed by the AAAS Research Competitiveness Program and advanced through its involvement in award programs like the Catalyst Award.

"Any time we are supporting a merit review process that operates to the highest standards, we are supporting research competitiveness," said Charles Dunlap, RCP director. "Science wins if everyone doing it is highly competent and keeps challenging themselves to do better."