Shrinking Packages Help Dell Cut Material Use by Nearly 9M Pounds

Shrinking Packages Help Dell Cut Material Use by Nearly 9M Pounds

Dell boxes - CC license by Flickr user vaxomatic

Dell has reduced its packaging by 8.7 million pounds in the past year, neared its goal to add more recycled content and is well over halfway to making the majority of its packaging recyclable in most places.

"Particularly on my team, the packaging engineering team, the team really starting to see itself more as environmental champions as these programs really start to take off," said Oliver Campbell,  worldwide senior manager for packaging at Dell (DELL).

In late 2008 the company announced plans to cut packaging by 20 million pounds, make 75 percent of its packaging curbside recyclable and increase recycled or renewable content by 40 percent. Dell details its packaging progress in its latest corporate responsibility report.

Since mid-2009, Dell has cut its packaging by 8.7 million pounds. Adding onto the 9.5 million pounds reduced in fiscal year 2009, Dell is up to 18.2 million pounds of its goal. Campbell said much of that has been possible with engineering tools that help optimize packaging size. Other reductions have come from looking at the impacts of even the smallest changes.

For Dell's 15" Inspiron laptop, an engineer looking at how to shrink its packaging figured out that by reducing what is inside the box and laying out items in the box differently, Dell could shave off a few millimeters. A small amount, but just enough to let Dell fit nine additional boxes on a pallet, going from 54 laptops to 63, which can lead to further savings through transportation and storage.

Dell has also increased the recycled content of its cushioning and corrugate by 32 percent, putting its overall recycled content to 35 percent. The company is now using the equivalent of 9.5 million half-gallon milk jugs in its plastic cushioning. It has also increased the amount of recycled content in its polyethylene foams; two years ago the foam had no recycled content, and now it is 65 percent recycled. Dell is trying to increase that even more, but, Oliver said, "We have some technical issues we're working through with our suppliers."

More than half of all Dell packaging is now also curbside recyclable, a designation Dell is giving to materials that are broadly recycled in the United States. Dell wants 75 percent of its packaging to be widely recyclable. That means getting rid of materials like polyethylene bags (identified by resin code #4) and polystyrene (resin code #6).

"We're dramatically moving away from (polystyrene)," Campbell said. In place of it, Dell is using molded paper pulp, bamboo and recycled plastic. "Some of this gets into where the products are actually manufactured and boxed," he said. "Not all materials are easily or economically available."

Bamboo makes sense to use in operations in China, but in the U.S. and Mexico, where you'd be hard pressed to find bamboo forests, Dell is using molded paper pulp or recycled plastic cushioning. "Our approach has been more along the lines of, 'Let's look at what indigenous material makes sense,'" Campbell said. Along with likely having the lower environmental impact, using local materials also makes more sense economically, he said.

Dell introduced bamboo cushioning late last year, and its bamboo packaging was certified compostable a few months ago. The company is now waiting to hear from the Federal Trade Commission if the bamboo packaging could be widely recycled in the U.S.

Throughout all of his team's efforts, Campbell said he has seen an encouraging cultural change at the company, allowing his team, now that they have had success with many of their efforts, to push back against some long-standing packaging concepts. "If you view yourself just as a packaging team, you kind of accept the status quo," he said, "but when you look at yourself more as an environmental champion, as a leader, I think that's a difference maker."

Dell boxes - CC license by Flickr user vaxomatic