Dell advances green packaging, closed-loop recycling

Dell continues to raise the bar for the high-tech industry when it comes to innovative packaging choices and groundbreaking recycling initiatives.

This week, its sustainability team is disclosing details about two specific industry "firsts," both of which are the result of close, collaborative sustainable business partnerships born in its supply chain.

First, Dell has become the second high-profile company to announce a deal with AirCarbon, an innovative plastic material from Newlight Technologies created by pulling carbon out of the air. Newlight, which last year got a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy, recently announced a relationship with Sprint, under which it is making "carbon-negative" iPhone accessories.

Dell's initial plan is to use AirCarbon for sleeves to protect new Latitude series notebooks. It connected with Newlight after a conversation with another supply chain partner, said Oliver Campbell, director of worldwide procurement at Dell.

In addition to the Newlight deal, the technology giant is turning to long-time manufacturing partner, Wistron GreenTech, to pull off another big breakthrough: becoming the first company in the IT industry to earn a closed-loop recycling validation from UL Environment.

Dell's forthcoming OptiPlex 3030 All-in-One desktop computer (due out by June) will be the first to contain a minimum of 10 percent post-consumer recycled plastic, collected through Dell's ongoing electronic-waste recovery processes, the company said. The recycled e-waste material is specifically used to make parts such as the stand and the backing for the computer, according to an infographic from Dell.

"We have a long-standing commitment to conduct our business responsibly," said Dell CEO Michael Dell, in remarks prepared for the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference where the initiatives were disclosed. "AirCarbon packaging and closed-loop recycled plastics are terrific innovations and big steps forward as we work with our customers and partners toward our 2020 goals."

Closing the loop

Dell developed its closed-loop strategy in collaboration with Wistron, a longstanding Dell original design manufacturer (ODM), reaching back to several years ago when the latter started investing more heavily in e-waste recycling, said Scott O'Connell, director of environmental affairs at Dell.

Image by Philip Lange via Shutterstock.In part, the "customer-driven" plan was inspired by the EPEAT certification, which requires vendors to use a minimum percentage of recycled plastics in computer chassis, O'Connell said. EPEAT is used by both government agencies and businesses to guide volume technology procurements. Certain components of Dell's new computer will use materials derived from Dell's own recycled electronics, a process managed by Wistron. "The biggest challenge was to hone in on the properties of the plastic and get it to meet our needs," he said. "Now that we've handled the resins, it's a question of how do we get the electronics right."

Dell's goal is to include up to 50 million pounds of recycled-content plastics and other "sustainable" materials in its products by 2020.

"Reclaiming and reusing post-consumer plastics to manufacture new computers allows Dell to reduce the environmental impact of its materials sourcing and manufacturing processes, which benefits everyone," said Sara Greenstein, president of UL Supply Chain & Sustainability, in a statement.

Legacy of green packaging experiments

The decision to use AirCarbon builds on Dell's previous experiments in green packaging, which have inspired the company to replace wasteful materials with more sustainable choices such as bamboo, mushroom cushions and wheat straw. So far, those projects have helped eliminate 20 million pounds of packaging and saved $18 million, according to Dell estimates.

The focus for Dell's AirCarbon pilot, the Latitude notebook series, was chosen because the Mexican manufacturing site for the product line was relatively close to Newlight's production facility in southern California. "The bag is both carbon-negative and lower-cost," Campbell said.

The feedstock for the plastic comes from greenhouse gases collected from the air at landfills, farms, wastewater treatment plants and other facilities. Its status as a carbon-negative substance has been independently verified by Trucost, in cooperation with NSF Sustainability.

Campbell points to "flexibility" in Dell's supply chain as a major factor in the company's ability to incubate new approaches, such as the ones developed by Newlight and Ecovative, which makes the mushroom cushions used for some of its other products.

You'll continue to see Dell evolve its strategy. For example, when prices for bamboo began to rise, the company began using wheatstraw as a substitute and it will continue to ramp up its use of that material. "Our primary motivator is to find ultra-renewable materials. … Why should a tree be used?" he said.

Bamboo image by cheryl flava via Flickr.