Circular Innovations Save Money, Save the Planet

We’ve talked a lot lately about ocean plastics—about how 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans every year, and how Dell is working to turn those ocean plastics into packaging. I bet it’s hard to conceptualize eight million metric tons of plastic, so let me help: it would be almost 336 million empty 20 oz. plastic water bottles. So that’s 336 million water bottles’ worth of plastic exiting the economy.

sand dunes and ocean

Now, according to estimates from the United Nations, 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste are discarded each year. These electronics are also exiting the economy, and with them go viable materials that could be reused or recycled.

What if I told you we could use those materials to make new parts for electronics that have a better environmental profile, save us money, and meet your procurement needs?

Innovation and regenerative design

It’s not only possible, but we believe these innovative approaches represent the future. It starts with taking a systems approach—looking across functions and processes, understanding how they all work together to identify where we can have the best effect. For Dell, that “best effect” meant reducing the environmental impact, reducing cost and meeting our demanding performance criteria.

And that’s where imagination kicks in.

One thing we have all learned is that doing things the same old way will not result in the change we need and want to see. This is particularly true of materials sourcing and manufacturing, where we need paradigmatic shifts in thinking and processes—radical changes that require new approaches.

For some time, Dell has had both a strong recycling program and a design for the environment program that used recycled-content plastics. As both programs grew, we asked ourselves a simple question: with all the available plastic we are collecting, why can’t we use it ourselves?

We tested various mixtures and types of materials, trying to qualify them to Dell’s standards. Not every type of recycled plastic will work for our needs at the moment, but we continue to experiment. ABS plastic, however, is working for us and we began by using it for large-scale applications, like the back panel of our all-in-one commercial products and monitors. We were the first in our industry to use a closed-loop material (where it gets made, used, and recycled back into the same use) at scale for a computing product and, to date, we have sold tens of millions of units worldwide. And we continue to look for other applications, expanding beyond our existing 91 product lines to other product types. Remembering that our goal was to reduce the environmental footprint, reduce the cost, and not lose quality, we are quite proud of the results:

  • An 11 percent smaller carbon footprint (even with moving the recycled plastics from the U.S. to China)
  • A natural capital benefit of $1.3 million annually, according to a study by TruCost
  • More than $1 million in savings for Dell

All told, 35 percent of the plastics shipped in Dell end-user computing products are post-consumer recycled plastics (either from recycled water bottles or closed-loop plastics from our own recycling). But it’s not just plastic.

The same questions that led to our closed-loop plastics have created other opportunities for Dell, too. We were the first to use recycled carbon fiber—recovered from post-manufacturing sources and kept out of landfills. The recycled carbon fiber is used on the base plate of select notebooks.

And of course there are the ocean plastics: we are processing plastics collected from beaches, waterways and coastal areas and using them as part of a new packaging system for the XPS 13 2-In-1 laptop globally. This initial pilot project will start by keeping 16,000 pounds of plastics out of the ocean. As part of a UN pledge, we have committed to growing that use to 160,000 pounds per year by 2025.

Our opportunities to innovate and shift to a more circular economy have not been limited to recycled or reclaimed materials. Our packaging team has also developed bio-based solutions that rely on rapidly renewable resources like bamboo (which grows back at up to one inch per hour) and mushrooms (which can be grown in a form for cushioning that replaces petroleum-based foams).

The circular economy is more than recycling 2.0

We are proud of the work we’ve done so far to transform the way we make products and packaging. Keeping materials at a high level of use for a longer period of time within the economy is a key part of what the “circular economy” is all about.

And we are very honored to be recognized recently with awards from the Recycling Council of British Columbia and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, with a Project of the Year Award from Environmental Leader, and with the Bamboo Mobile Award for Eco/Green Product Design from Compass Intelligence. The process behind our closed-loop efforts was also featured by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation as a circular economy case study.

Honored as we are, our efforts cannot stop with just using recycled-content materials and designing to make products last longer or be easy to repair and reuse. The circular economy is about creating value without creating more stuff. It’s about finding efficiencies and eliminating waste.

Guess what? That’s just good business.

And that’s why we’re so excited by what technology can enable in a circular economy. Today we see how technology in the hands of our customers can create net positive results.

Shared resources

There is tremendous unused value in underutilized assets. The most famous examples you can think of right now are ride-sharing or house-swapping apps and yes—these are great examples of how technology makes it possible to get more value out of your car or home. In fact, if you think about cloud computing and various software-as-a-service products, that’s exactly the model being employed across the board.

Ride sharing without mobile electronics, data centers and cloud services is just a collection of index cards on a dorm wall bulletin board.

That untapped potential, though, goes much farther. Virtualization is a great example. Running more than one application per server (by creating virtual servers) allows servers to run at greater efficiency, reducing electricity costs, saving space and cutting power and cooling needs. In fact, VMware’s server virtualization products have helped their customers avoid an estimated 340 million metric tons of CO2e over the last 13 years.

To measure is to manage

The tools of the Internet of Things and the capabilities of Big Data analytics can help customers uncover opportunities for greater efficiency and new or better value generation, especially at the systems level.

Right now, high-performance computing clusters are the engines measuring climate change and revealing the secrets of the cosmos. Those same predictive analytics, when tied to GIS and traffic management systems, can help reduce transportation-related emissions and time-to-delivery for a logistics company— or, in conjunction with IOT-enabled sensors, better coordinate the electricity grid.

Another example: our customer Animusoft and their drone-powered machine learning solution called Alive that helps farmers.

The video captured by their drones allows their cloud-based machine learning engine to translate the raw data into actionable intelligence. That could be identifying diseases based on changes in crop color, or identifying crop performance indicators, like areas struggling due to low water, or identifying areas where fruit is ripe for picking. All of this becomes actionable—and the drones can even spot-treat infections, fertilize or deliver water. This creative solution is already helping farmers improve yields by up to 25 percent on the same land, and the potential for reducing run-off, saving water or avoiding spoilage are impressive. You can read more about their story here.

We are eager to help our customers understand more about this shift to a circular economy. Please get in touch if you’re interested in discussing how technology and the circular economy can work together or understanding how we are using innovation to change the way we manufacture.


This story shares one example of how Dell is committed to driving human progress by putting our technology and expertise to work where it can do the most good for people and the planet.

We invite you to explore our FY17 Annual update on our 2020 Legacy of Good Plan at

About the Author: Stephen Roberts

At the confluence of sustainability, marketing and business strategy stands Stephen Roberts, a 23-year veteran of environmental and public health marketing efforts. Stephen joined Dell Technologies in 2011 and has since helped develop the company’s approach to and marketing of circular economy efforts, ecosystem restoration, and combatting climate change. In addition to managing sustainability efforts associated with Dell’s social impact vision, Progress Made Real, Stephen leads global communications efforts for the Planet Employee Resource Group. When he’s not crafting green stories, you might find him coaching the women’s water polo team at the University of Texas or on a travel adventure with his wife and son.