Circular Design Gives E-Waste a Second Life

Dell Technologies goes back to the future as we design for a more circular economy.

I’m always surprised by the statistics about electronic waste (e-waste) and how little is understood about this critical environmental issue. A recent study of Gen Z and Millennials found 60% of adults don’t know what e-waste is, and 57% didn’t realize these items contribute to pollution. E-waste is anything with a plug, battery or cable—electronics that have reached the end of their useful lives. Every year we recognize International E-Waste Day on Oct. 14, an annual campaign to raise awareness about the growing problem of e-waste and promote responsible e-waste management.

We often talk about environmental issues associated with this growing waste stream, but when I think about e-waste, I see opportunity. As product design engineers, my team makes our technology more sustainable by incorporating materials with reduced carbon emissions. This could be a sustainable material like recycled carbon fiber or one produced with renewable energy like our hydropower aluminum. At Dell, a lot of thought and research goes into the materials we choose and the processes we use to manufacture them. To help stem the flow of e-waste, we go “back to the future” and strive to design to extend product life and more easily access components for recyclability.

Our Commitment to Circularity

At Dell, we are committed to keep materials in use longer, and our 2030 goals span the full lifecycle of our products—from design through manufacturing, shipping and recovery:

  • For every metric ton of our product customers buy, we will reuse or recycle one metric ton.
  • We will make 100% of our packaging from recycled or renewable material or will utilize reused packaging.
  • We will make more than half of our product content from recycled, renewable or reduced carbon emissions material.

Designing for the End from the Start

When we design products, we must design for circularity. Driving a circular economy will directly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing new materials. We work to incorporate more sustainable materials into our technology, but we also optimize the materials we use. We reduce the number of materials wherever possible and make sure we don’t use anything that is not absolutely necessary or that makes the device difficult to recycle at endoflife. And we design our products to ensure materials are more easily harvested for reuse and recycling.  

The Opportunity in E-Waste

Our recovery and recycling services support e-waste reduction and also provide a valuable stream of materials that can be repurposed or recycled for use in new products. Since 2007, Dell has recovered more than 2.5 billion pounds of used electronics. If a product reaches end-of-life and repair or reuse is not possible, we employ closed-loop strategies, where applicable, to create new products by recycling select materials from out-of-use technology. In 2014, we pioneered the use of closed-loop plastics from recovered technology, and we also use closed-loop rare earth magnets and aluminum.

Bottom line—to meet our goals and increase sustainable and recycled materials in our technology, we need more products returned so we can harvest more materials. We can all help by emptying our closets and cabinets and returning old electronics. Dell makes it convenient and secure to return and recycle end-of-life electronics and accessories. In addition to reducing e-waste, you are also extending the life of materials that can be scaled into new products.

We have made good progress, but still have a lot of work ahead to achieve our goals, and it will take all of us working together to drive a more circular economy. Visit Accelerating the Circular Economy for more information.

About the Author: Nick Abbatiello

Nick is currently a Senior Distinguished Engineer in DELL Technologies’ Experience Innovation Group, where he is responsible for researching and incorporating sustainable and renewable materials into DELL's products. He joined DELL 16 years ago from the former General Electric Plastics business where he worked for 12 years.  He first became interested in materials while studying Mechanical Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, which continued while pursuing his MS degree in Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Rhode Island. For the past 13 years, Nick has been focused on driving innovation in key areas, including new materials, manufacturing processes and coating technology.  He and his team are now focused on driving strategy and implementing solutions for DELL’s 2030 advancing sustainability goals focused on the Circular Economy. He enjoys challenging the status quo while pushing the limits to develop materials and processes to reduce the impact on the environment.