ROUND ROCK, Texas — Dell today upped the ante on the information technology (IT) industry's efforts to responsibly deal with broken, outdated or discarded technology with a simple but comprehensive company-wide policy on electronic waste.

Mark Newton, the company's senior manager of environmental sustainability, explained: "If it's not working, Dell considers it to be electronic waste, and they will not export it to a developing country. Period."

The policy aims to address the growing problem of e-waste exports, which are often shipped from developed countries to developing nations and are dismantled in polluting and unhealthy ways to salvage potentially valuable minerals and materials from discarded electronics.

"What's going on in the electronics recycling industry today is that most companies that call themselves recyclers don't recycle anything," explained Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Instead, she added, they export them to countries like China, Ghana, India and others, where they end up in backyard recycling facilities, and are dismantled using primitive and dangerous practices to get the valuable materials out of the electronics.

Dell's policy, as Newton explained it today, defines waste as parts or entire electronics that are not working, regardless of their material composition. Any non-functioning electronics will not be exported to developing countries for recycling, whether by Dell or its recycling partners, and the domestic firms that dismantle electronics domestically will also avoid using prison or child labor for recycling.

Children extracting copper from discarded computer parts in Delhi, India. Photo CC-licensed by Greenpeace India.
Children extracting copper from discarded computer parts in Delhi, India.

There are some exceptions to the "If it's broken, don't export it" policy: Newton explained that, because exports of e-waste do supply a basic need of developing nations for materials that can be put to use in new products, Dell will export selected materials. Electronics and materials that are deemed non-hazardous by the Basel Convention on toxic wastes, that are in working order, or those that have been returned to the manufacturer in a functioning state are all eligible for export under the policy.

Dell's policy goes beyond the Basel Convention's guidelines for exporting electronic waste, and going far beyond the minimal regulations in place in the United States.

Barbara Kyle said that, although most IT manufacturers have stated policies about exporting e-waste, they're often just smoke and mirrors.

"Companies are hiding behind green rhetoric," she said. "Most of the other companies have policies that are misleading at best -- they don't want us to know what they're doing with exports. They use misleading phrases to obscure what they're doing, [for instance, saying] they don't export hazardous waste, but they don't mention that if someone will buy it, they don't consider it waste."

E-waste has been in the limelight repeatedly in recent months. Last fall, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report highlighting the failures of the only e-waste law on the books to make any significant impacts on the amount of cathode-ray tube televisions exported to developing countries. In addition to the GAO report (which Barbara Kyle discussed in a podcast last fall), the television news program 60 Minutes also aired an exposé showing how one recycler exports waste to China for slipshod disposal.

Right around the same time, a new group called the E-Stewards unveiled their comprehensive e-waste recycling certification, aimed at compensating for a lack of leadership on the national level.

Full details about Dell's recycling policy are online at http://dell.com/recycling.

Monitor photo CC-licensed by Flickr user youngthousands.