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How Samsung, Dell are reinventing IT products

In their circular economy efforts, two tech giants lower their carbon footprints while innovating with longer-living products.

Circular economy thinking has become part of most industry ecosystems, helping to expand product lifecycles and setting a strategy for sustainable development. The Internet technology sector, with its fast pace of innovation and product upgrades, stands to benefit from using more recycled materials and keeping its products out of the trash.  

Samsung and Dell proverbially have "taken the red pill" in acknowledging the impacts of IT on the environment and then doing something about it, as well as passing the benefits on to customers. Sustainability experts from both companies recently discussed their efforts in a webcast by TCO Development. TCO Development is the organization behind the TCO Certified independent sustainability certification for IT products. 

The circular economy takes the traditional, linear model of "take, make and dispose" — which moves products from design to factory to consumer to landfill — and bends it into a closed loop. By entering the circular economy, an industry blunts its negative effects through: managing technical and natural resource flows; optimizing products and materials to live longer; and devising ways to recycle or regenerate materials for further use.

According to TCO Development, e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste steam, with a relatively low recycling rate overall. This opens a lot of untapped potential to create a more sustainable, efficient product ecosystem. 

According to TCO, e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste steam, with a relatively low recycling rate overall. This opens a lot of untapped potential to create a more sustainable, efficient product ecosystem.

Making planned obsolescence obsolete

"We live in a time of immense change for our societies, and technology is one of the drivers of this change," said Annachiara Torciano, sustainability manager at Samsung Nordic. "Technology is also a great platform to advance the circular economy. There are challenges, however; we are an innovative company and we are considering how to realize more circular models for our products and services."

By driving meaningful innovation for consumers, being creative with materials and taking responsibility for robust recycling programs, Samsung is moving past these challenges into a circular economy. Some of these measures simply read as consumer-friendly features.  

Keeping items out of waste stream starts with helping customers keep Samsung’s products longer, so it provides a two- and 10-year warranty on key product components. It also has premium repair centers offering one-hour repairs, and developed an app on smartphones and TVs through which Samsung provides remote support for these products.

"We are using more and more IT products and devices, which means that there’s an increasing need to recycle the resources that go into the products," said Louise Koch, corporate sustainability lead of Dell EMC Europe, Middle East and Africa. "To us, circular economy is not only about circular resource use, it’s about being wiser in the way we use natural resources."

Even though Koch said most customers don’t demand recycled products up front, they still benefit from the circular economy. She sees Dell’s challenge as driving efficiency in the circular economy using data and the internet of things, which enables customers to be smarter about their resources.

Out with the old, in with the refurbished

Dell’s tech recycling program spans 83 countries and territories and has recovered 1.6 billion pounds of electronics since it launched in 2007. Many of its products use recycled plastics and are designed to be fully dismantled so that its parts can be recycled or reused. 

Dell launched a closed-loop plastics supply chain in 2014 that feeds more than 48 product lines. When customers are done with a product — or even a non-Dell tech product — they can arrange with Dell for pickup at specific Goodwill locations. Dell takes the item, wipes its data and refurbishes it, resells it or donates it to charity. If it’s at the end of the product lifecycle, it is recycled with full consumer-friendly traceability.

The loop has created 3.5 million new parts for tens of millions of units with a carbon footprint that is 11 percent lower than for virgin plastics, and this accounts for the carbon footprint of shipping the item to Dell’s processing plant in China.  

Even packaging gets a thoughtful makeover: 93 percent of Dell’s packaging is waste-free and made of renewable materials such as bamboo, wheat straw and mushrooms (Koch claims it’s edible, but not tasty).

On the materials front, Samsung uses 30 percent recycled plastic in desktop monitors launched starting from 2015. In the latest flagship model smartphones, including the S6 edge+ and S7/S7 edge, earphone cases (60 percent), the inner tray (30 percent) and charger (20 percent) are made of recycled plastic.

"In total, 6.5 percent of the plastics we used in 2015 is recycled," said Torciano. "It’s relatively low, but it has almost doubled since 2013. Because of our size, we can really contribute to the growth of recycled plastics in materials."

In an experimental step, polyketone, a plastic made from the carbon monoxide given off in oil refining, is used in U.S. television audios. Samsung also offers waste collection in regions where it’s not yet offered on a large scale. 

Dell’s tech recycling program spans 83 countries and territories and has recovered 1.6 billion pounds of electronics since it launched in 2007.

Shaping the legal landscape

"The circular economy in IT has become much more visible, and policy makers are paying much more attention," Torciano said of the legal landscape surrounding recycled IT products. "By our measure, more than 50 percent of the European Commission Circular Economy Package relates to the IT sector." She was referring to an EU action circular economy action plan that establishes guidance covering product life cycles from production and consumption to waste management and recycling.

The Samsung sustainability lead addressed the regulatory "hot discussion" about what makes products more recyclable, easier to dismantle and more durable. "There are discussions about economic incentives for better product design and better recycling, or raising the standards for recycling and targets for product reuse."

"IT sees fast pace of innovation, so it’s difficult if policies are too prescriptive," she said. "As a current example, the legal requirement is to have the battery in IT products removed by a professional. The debate is that the wish to have the battery removed by consumers should be balanced with other consumer-relevant aspects: It should be lighter; thinner; more portable; and focused on performance. Finally, the criteria and measurements have to be defined and developed. They have to be realistic, because the legal requirements have to be controlled by the authorities. Otherwise there's no level playing field."

The industry wants harmonized standards for recycling across Europe, because "non-harmonized national incentives are really a nightmare for IT, and they have a lower impact as they are limited to one member state."

"We need to harmonize regulation across borders," Koch agreed. "This is where eco-labels can choose the sustainable version of the product and those that have broader life cycles."

Outside organizations, such as TCO Certified, EPEAT and Energy Star play a big role on helping the IT industry reach sustainability and recycling goals. They help set an industry standard that crosses between individual companies.

"We are very aware that innovation does not happen in a silo, and this is true for the circular economy," said Torciano. "We need collaboration with many other actors: Customers; eco labels; recycling ecosystem; and environmental organizations."

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