Why recycling – and buying recycled – matters

By Stephen M. Roberts

Did you know that November 15 is America Recycles Day? 

Chances are you did not. And that’s ok (now you know). It’s hard to keep up with everything that falls between #NationalCatDay and Thanksgiving, believe me. But back in 1997, when I was part of a four-person ad agency that pulled together the recycling community of the United States to drive public awareness, it was kind of a big deal. 

A big deal because recycling rates were low, because recycling was the domain of “tree-hugging hippies,” and because most people thought recycling was – at best – tossing an empty can of pop into the blue bin. 

Some things have changed: the recycling rate has increased – Americans recycle about 34.3 percent of the trash we generate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We keep about 87 million tons of material out of landfills via recycling and composting each year, a significant increase from the 15 million tons in 1980. Recycling has also become the rule instead of the exception in many places both public and private. 

Still, there are some troubling trends that indicate we still have some work to do. 

For starters, we’re heading toward a demographic challenge. Yes – the recycling rate is improving and the per-person amount of waste is coming down. Those rates are not improving at the same rate that the population is growing, however. And as more people join the consumer class around the world (more than doubling in size by 2030), we are stressing the planet and the economy. 

That’s right: I said the economy. When resources are landfilled, they exit the economy. Rather than drone on about the environmental reasons to keep them out of there, let’s consider the economic ones. How do we keep those resources that we’ve already extracted and/or processed in the economy, getmore value from what we’ve already dug up or created? How do we reduce the need to go to ever-greater lengths and ever-more-remote places to acquire the raw materials that keep the economy going? 

One of the most extreme examples is electronics. You are literally throwing away gold (and other metals and plastics among other materials) if you fail to recycle your PC, phone or other electronic gadgets.

The current recycling rate for electronics in certain markets is abysmally low, hovering around a global average of about 15 percent of the more than 75 million tons of electrical and electronic equipment that will get discarded this year according to the StEP Initiative/United Nations University. That means the other 85 percent of electronics might wind up in landfills where, over time, they corrode and crack. And if the landfill lining breaks, certain metals could make their way into the surrounding environment. Or maybe those electronics wind up illegally sent to the developing world where people pick over the giant piles in search of gold and other materials. Or in either place, the electronics may simply get burned instead of recycled, wasting resources that could have otherwise been recovered and recycled into other products.

But recycling is hard, you say. Wrong. Most manufacturers have some kind of take-back programs. At Dell, we have partnered with shipping companies across the globe to provide free mail-back recycling of any Dell-branded IT equipment for home users. goodwillnynj.org

If you’re like me, you likely have a mixed bag of electronics from various manufacturers. That’s why the Dell Reconnect, a partnership with Goodwill® Industries exists.

Thanks to Dell Reconnect, you can drop off any brand of used IT equipment in any condition for free recycling at more than 2,000 participating Goodwill locations around the U.S.

In fact, in honor of America Recycles Day this year, Dell and our Social Good Advocate, Adrian Grenier, are partnering with UberNYC.com and GoodwillNYNJ in New York City to launch the NYC Tech Takeback event. NYC residents in certain boroughs can request an Uber driver to come pick up their used electronics for free (by searching “TechTakeback” on the Uber app) to be responsibly recycled at a local Goodwill store through the Dell Reconnect program. Donors will need to make sure to wipe their hard drives on all systems so no data is left on them before they recycle as Dell and Goodwill are not responsible for any data left on equipment. This event not only protects the environment by diverting e-waste from landfills, but all donations will help NYC communities by providing job training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities and disadvantages through Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey (Goodwill NYNJ).

NYC Tech Takeback event details:
Saturday, Nov. 14th  from 10am – 4pm
Request by searching “TechTakeback” on the Uber app
Neighborhoods: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens

For a full list of items accepted and to learn how you can receive a tax deduction through your donation, please visit Goodwill NYNJ.

Outside of New York consumers can still take part in responsibly recycling their used IT equipment by dropping it off at their local participating Goodwill. Please visit dell.com/reconnect to find a location near you. If consumers don’t live near a Dell Reconnect drop-off location, they can still safely recycle through our free mail-back program.  Additionally, Dell now provides a national consumer trade-in program that offers a dell.com gift card when customers trade-in any brand of used electronics.  

So a fundamental question that might come up – and a good one for you to ask – is: what happens to the stuff I recycle? 

For it to truly be more than a nice, neat little pile of trash at the end of your curb every 2 weeks, we again need to look at the economics instead of just the environmental piece. There’s been an interesting debate in the world of recycling lately, spilling into your NPR airwaves and opinion pages. The argument is a familiar one, where many believe it is more expensive for municipalities to recycle waste than to send it to a landfill. 

These arguments aren’t without some merit, but as prominent leaders have pointed out, current trajectories and a sharp increase in real prices (and price volatility) of commodities indicate we are headed for resource constraints. There’s also the challenge of collecting enough of various materials to ensure a steady supply of recycled content to manufacturers. Without these materials, supply chains get disrupted and manufacturers are not going to take that risk. 

And this comes back to the recycling rate. It’s the reason why aluminum is one of the most recycled materials on earth. As the industry points out, aluminum cans return from the recycling bin to the store shelf in as few as 60 days. If everyone recycles the cans, it is easy for the industry to keep reusing the material. 

Of course, it’s not as simple when it comes to complex electronics. Smart manufacturers have realized that they can improve the situation through the way they design their products. By working with the recycling industry, Dell has made it easier for our products to be repaired or disassembled at the end of their use. Easier disassembly means more materials are recovered with greater efficiency, reducing waste while reducing the processors’ costs. 

Design is only part of it, though. That first year I worked on America Recycles Day, we had a tag line that really stuck with me: If you’re not buying recycled, you’re not really recycling. It is so true. If we don’t have markets (yes, I’m going to harp on that economics thing again) for our recyclables, if we can’t create products using those recovered materials, we need to look farther down the “waste hierarchy” and try to recover value through waste-to-energy schemes. Burning recyclables doesn’t make sense to me when they can be used in a better way. 

It’s a reason I’m excited about Dell’s closed-loop supply chain for plastics and our work on transitioning to a more circular economy. For example, we are taking the plastics recovered from electronics you recycle through the Dell Reconnect program, melt them down and mix them with a portion of virgin plastics to make new parts for more than 30 different product lines. We started the program in mid-2014 and have used more than 4.5 million pounds of plastics created this way – and if we recover more electronics, we could use more. 

Dell is also using other “waste” products for both packaging and product design. We have started using reclaimed carbon fiber from other industries in select products and use wheat straw (which would otherwise be burned by farmers in China, creating downstream air pollution) as part of various packaging boxes and cushions. These innovative solutions reduce the environmental impact and are comparable in costs – sometimes even less expensive than their virgin alternatives. 

So that brings us back to America Recycles Day on November 15 . What can you do?

  1. Take the America Recycles Day pledge to learn what’s collected in your community and act by increasing what you recycle within the next month. Encourage others to take the pledge and use the #Iwillrecycle hashtag.
  2. Recycle those electronics: with more than 2,000 Goodwill locations participating in Dell Reconnect , it couldn’t be easier to responsibly recycle and potentially get a tax write-off.
  3. Buy recycled: look for companies that are using recycled-content in their products and packaging. Encourage your employer to look for the recycled-content options in whatever they buy. And if you have any influence in the design process, look for ways to incorporate recycled content where you can to help keep the cycle going. 

For more information on Dell’s global take-back and recycling efforts, visitdell.com/recycleAmerica Recycles Day is now a national initiative of Keep America Beautiful – many thanks to them for keeping this important effort going.

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