Dell has a solid history as a leader in both recycling and design for recyclability. Today, with the establishment of a new closed-loop recycled plastics supply chain, Dell is moving toward a true circular economy for technology with real benefits to customers and the planet alike.

What is closed-loop?

Closed-loop systems are the backbone of a circular economy – one which looks to keep materials engaged in a circular way, recycled and reused throughout rather than used once and turned into waste. Recycling is the engine of this process, but poor design can limit recoverability. That’s one reason Dell focuses on limiting glues, using snap fits and other design considerations that make it easy to recycle our technology.

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Click to view our closed-loop recycling process

When something gets recycled, a common misconception is that it gets easily and immediately turned right back into the same thing it was. The reality is many materials are “downcycled,” meaning they are converted into new materials that are usually of a lesser quality or reduced functionality. Closed-loop systems, however, recycle and reuse materials repeatedly. This reduces the need for virgin materials while avoiding the creation of waste.

A key component of closed-loop systems is the idea that recycling comes from the same product or same industry. In the case of Dell, this means recycling computers back into new computers. We have used recycled-content plastics derived from water bottles and other plastic sources for some time in our monitors and OptiPlex desktops. Our closed-loop system uses plastics derived from the computers we take back.

How Dell does closed-loop recycling

Since 2014, Dell has taken the plastics from old computers recovered through our recycling programs and turned that back into new plastic parts for new products (see video). Materials collected through our Dell Reconnect Partnership with Goodwill and our Asset Resale and Recycling Services in the United States all feed this supply chain and we continue to look for opportunities to expand sourcing to other regions.”

The plastics are separated into types and shipped to our manufacturing partners in China. Meanwhile, other materials from the computers are similarly recycled and separated, then sold on the commodities market for reuse by others.

When the plastics arrive, they are shredded at the manufacturing facilities, melted and blended (currently 35 percent recycled-content), then molded into new parts. Closed-loop plastics are used in parts for more than 90 different products (as of June 2017) and it takes approximately 6 months for the materials to go from old computer, get melted down and turned back into a new computer. The process we developed became the model for UL Environment’s closed-loop standard, and Dell was the first to achieve certification (in 2014).

Benefits of our closed-loop plastics supply chain

One thing customers frequently explain is that they want products that are better for the environment, but they don’t want to pay more and it cannot affect performance. The closed-loop plastics supply chain delivers exactly that – in fact, the closed-loop process delivers an energy-efficient product made from recycled content that is nominally less expensive, with the potential to show greater cost savings as the program scales.

While the performance of the products made with closed-loop plastics is no different, a recent study by TruCost showed that our closed-loop process yielded a natural capital net benefit of 44% (worth $1.3 million annually) compared to the use of virgin plastics.