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6 lessons from Dell and Cisco about advancing circular products

In a circular economy, these old motherboards are a goldmine.

In a circular economy, these old motherboards are a goldmine.

Petr Bonek

Cisco Product Engineering Manager Clark Nishikawa hadn’t heard much about the circular economy until a couple years ago. As he approaches his 20th year at the company, it’s now one of the driving forces behind his work.

Cisco has issued a slew of related pledges for 2025, including to incorporate circular design principles within all new products, to boost packaging efficiency by 50 percent, and for 70 percent of key suppliers to meet a zero waste diversion rate. Moving forward, standardizing with modular designs and getting smarter about power circuitry are other focal points for the hardware maker.

"The momentum has just been huge; it’s like a tidal wave coming right now," he said during GreenBiz Group's VERGE 20 virtual event Tuesday. "There’s a large team organized at the company and top-down executive support at the company, so it’s really starting to kick off."

As more companies ride that wave, what can they learn from those who already have been in the water for a while?

Change comes from the top

Nishikawa described circular principles as being part of Cisco's DNA, but it wasn't the case until very recently. He credited CEO Chuck Robbins for embracing the shift as part of its overall social and environmental responsibility position.

"You have to get alignment from your organization, and have it come top-down," he said. "Then designing at scale for circular economy benefits just starts flowing."

Cisco's broad circular economy diagram.

At Dell Technologies, Sustainable Materials Regulatory Engineer Allison Ward praised the buy-in on circular principles from CEO Michael Dell and lead executives for helping internal teams to drive change. Support from the C-suite is especially useful for working deep in the supply chain and on the technical side, as well as in moving small pilot projects to scale, she said.

Dell's circular economy "moonshot goal" for 2030 includes: reusing or recycling a product for every new purchase; ensuring 100-percent recycled or renewable materials make up its packaging; and building recycled materials into more than half of its products' contents.

Bring the graveyard to the design team

For Ward, it's also important to make the downstream effects of Dell's products tangible to people throughout the company. Dell has begun to connect its front-end design and technology teams with strategic recycling partners, literally bringing them to the plant to see the product disassembly process. A volunteer event has enabled corporate staff to take apart the company's hardware themselves.

"It's not only kind of fun to maybe see the computer graveyard and some products they worked on five, 10 years ago, but really experience that disassembly and material recovery and component recovery firsthand," Ward said. And when those people design the next generation of products, for example, they may understand where they can use less glue or fewer screws.

Cisco, too, is increasingly emphasizing the end of the life cycle of a product, a concern that used to only have glancing attention. "But now we're shifting," Nishikawa said. "Is it recoverable? Can we reuse materials?"

Rethink materials

Materials are a strong early focus for Cisco's path toward a circular economy, Nishikawa said. Historically, building networking equipment has worked with a fixed list of materials. "Now, through some education and changes that are happening in the marketplace, we're getting more educated, and able to make different design decisions tied to material selection," he said.

New questions come up for both companies, such as whether plastics are needed in the first place, and if they are, can recycled plastics be used? Dell has put a lot of weight behind exploring plastics in the last decade, Ward noted.

Last year, Dell recovered a bit less than 10 percent of products by weight for reuse or recycling. And while 85 percent of its packaging was made of recycled or renewable ingredients, that last 15 percent gap will not be easy to close for things such as bags, wraps and ties with no clear recyclability.

You have to get alignment from your organization, and have it come top-down. Then designing at scale for circular economy benefits just starts flowing.

Yet information technology hardware is made up of more than 50 materials, many of which are metals. Dell is also working to close the loop on rare earths used in its magnets.

"We've just started the journey and we've got a long way to go," Ward said. "But how we plan to get there is by looking at emerging technologies with our R&D teams forming coalitions and partnerships to help build out those supply chains along the journey for it to all come together."

At the same time, the circular economy extends beyond materials to encompass longevity, repairability, modularity and even reconfiguring business models to improve management across a complete lifecycle, Ward noted.

Scaling depends on standardization

How can large companies bring circular solutions from their R&D labs and pilot projects to the masses in order to drive meaningful change?

Nishikawa equated scale with standardization in product development, which drives efficiency but can be a tough sell for creative designers.

"It just makes the whole methodology go faster, and the supply chain partners that we work with benefit as well," he said. "It makes their operations more efficient. The design direction has to be driven by that circular umbrella. Make sure you design, you have flexibility to design, but keep all the factors that drive circularity in mind when you do it."

Ward noted that putting a circular innovation into practice in millions of products hinges upon considering the available skills and abilities early in development, as well as assessing availability of materials in the supply chain. Are secondary sources needed? How does the rollout plan affect sourcing and the longevity of material use? 

"If we all kind of know what our products look like today, we can look in the crystal ball and see what they look like in the future," she said. That includes, for example, figuring out if plastic can be replaced with steel or vice versa, and what those impacts are. Understanding the impact of scaling on the company's greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental metrics also can ensure that benefits apply at full production level.

Talk to your partners

It's also crucial for companies not to make decisions in an internal bubble but to engage with stakeholders, particularly within the supply chain, Ward noted. 

Dell had partnered for many years with Wistron, an original design manufacturer in Taiwan. When the Texas-based laptop giant initiated discussions on its various sustainability goals, including for its closed-loop plastics program, it opened a new door between the companies. Dell learned that Wistron happened to have a recycling facility and a plastic resin compounder.

A Dell diagram of its closed-loop recycling approach.

"So it kind of made sense that we were able to work with them to connect the dots to be able to recycle our products, collect that plastic, and use it back and then create the closed-loop program today," she said. Working with Wistron, Dell is able to repurpose plastics from its spent LCDs, desktops and printers within new desktops and LCDs. The company also says it seeks to work within electronics and other industries to help other companies adopt circular practices for managing resources.

Nishikawa agreed about keeping the dialog open, both within and outside the company. "You have to keep your eyes open and get the blinders off because there are options out there, and that’s the challenge," he said.

Listen to customers

Reducing waste is part of the "design at value" concept at Cisco, which can hinge upon feedback from customers. Minimizing foam in packaging has been one of the biggest pleas from its customers, which has helped to lead to smaller boxes and reduced logistics costs.

"There may be things on a product design that we think are the coolest ever but customers tell us sometimes they don’t care about," Nishikawa said. Extra features can drive up costs, waste and design time, which all leads to more electricity and carbon emissions, he added.

"So there’s that chain reaction. It all goes back to the customer. What do they really want out of the product? It’s good to take that back to so you can sit down with your product marketing organizations and really quantify the features you put in place and the best money and time into."

Dell has a similar perspective, Ward said. "We're considering circularity very early in the design process, kind of with that customer-centric focus in mind."

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