Why Using Post-consumer Recycled Plastic in IT Devices Rocks

By Carol Baroudi
Jul 5, 2016 1:30 PM ET

When Dell captured the Green Electronics Council Catalyst award for 2015 last fall at the Emerging Green Conference, I felt they truly deserved it. The first Catalyst Award focused on electronics and related infrastructures’ positive impact on the circular economy, where circular economy is defined as “an economic system that is safe and restorative by intention and seeks to eradicate waste through the careful design, manufacture, use and handling of products and components.”

For all the talk about the circular economy, we don’t have many proof points that demonstrate the circular economy in action and can quantify its value. In essence, Dell is collecting used IT equipment and using the plastic it’s reclaiming in new products it manufactures. Under extended producer responsibility regulations, in many regions where Dell products are sold, Dell is obligated to collect and process a certain amount of electronics at end-of-life. There is no mandate, however, that compels them to incorporate anything they take back into new product. To do so is to begin to close the loop in electronics manufacturing.

Understanding the goodness requires looking beyond traditional energy efficiency, as ascribed to product performance, to huge energy efficiencies that, at scale, mean significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The gains come from the savings reflected in the embedded energy from the use of recycled plastics versus the embedded energy of virgin plastics. According to a report from the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge-MIT Institute, the embodied energy of recycled plastics is about half that of virgin plastics. According to some, for IT equipment, using post-consumer recycled plastic can reduce the embodied energy by up to 80%, with the corresponding reduction of emissions of 1 to 3 tons of GHG emissions for every ton of recycled plastic produced.

In 2015, 238,500,000 computers were sold globally. Computers vary widely in weight, but using 4 pounds (neither too fat nor too thin) as typical, and if 27% of the weight is plastic, replacing virgin plastic with recycled plastic would net a GHG emissions reduction of between 128,790 and 386,370 tons – the equivalent of taking between 30,000 and 90,000 cars off the road for a year.

The squeeze is on the recycled plastics industry as low oil prices have made the cost of producing virgin plastic less than the cost of producing recycled plastic. But if plastic (and materials and goods of all kinds) were priced to reflect all the externalized costs – the cost of environmental degradation, for example – recycled plastic would be much more competitive in the market. As it stands, using recycled plastic can be seen as:

  • Reducing emissions
  • Reducing waste
  • Reducing the consumption of raw materials

But the playing field doesn’t yet adequately reward what’s good for the environment. For the circular economy to succeed, true cost accounting must be used. Until then, kudos to companies like Dell and Staples, who are literally putting their money where their mouths are.

I’m anxious to hear more examples of the circular economy. If you have some to share, please drop me a line at cbaroudi@arrow.com.