Asia is where old Dell computers go, not to die, but to be regenerated. In Texas, Dell collects electronics made both by itself and other manufacturers, strips out components and sends them on a journey to processing plants and component makers in China.

The plastic gets shredded, melted and blended with virgin plastic. The resulting material, which is 35 per cent recycled, is then used to make new components. These are shipped back to Dell’s factory where they are used to build new computers.

For Dell, the economics are unusually attractive. These closed-loop plastics cost 10 per cent less than traditional recycled plastics.

That’s partly because Dell does some of the work—collecting the parts and handpicking the companies that do the recycling.

But the key to making this process viable is how it was conceived in the first place.

Crucially, it’s a journey that started on the computer giant’s drawing boards, not its factory floors. Dell is recycling by design—from the start, the company develops its products with an eye to eventually recycling as many of their parts as efficiently as possible.

As Scott O’Connell, director of environmental affairs at Dell, explained, “Through the take back program we offer—we’ll take back any brand not just Dell but any brand of used electronics—and from those we’re taking the plastics and putting them back into Dell products.”

Dell is not alone. Ever more firms are following a similar track, and almost any product could be re-designed to make it easier to recycle.

Small steps

The trouble most businesses face is that many of the goods society takes for granted are difficult to recycle.

Just a few decades ago, making durable products resulted in materials that “were so bound together that during the recycling process, it was really hard to separate—say, two metals or a metal and a plastic,” according to David Wagger, chief scientist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

And even when it’s technically feasible to take apart a product and recycle its parts, it doesn’t always make economic sense.

“When the value of a recycled material is less than the cost to produce it,” Wagger said, “it is difficult to make the economic case for recycling it.” This helps explain why plastic recycling rates are currently so low. The US recycled just 10 per cent of its plastic in 2014, the European Union 30 per cent.

To increase the likelihood that parts of a product will be recycled, it’s essential to consider recyclability during the design phase. A few simple steps can make a big difference—like using easily recyclable materials, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), where possible; labelling parts that can be recycled; making them easy to dissemble, which means using the least amount of adhesive as possible and no unusual fasteners that require special tools; and creating guides or even videos to show how to take apart a product for recycling.  

Following in Dell’s footsteps in the consumer electronics industry are companies like LG Electronics. Under pressure from investors and consumers, to eradicate the pollution caused by the smashing up of components that contain hazardous chemicals, including brain-damaging lead and cancer-causing cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls, LG decided to go back to the drawing board.

It now incorporates recycling-friendly traits into the manufacturing of its HD TVs by adopting mercury-free display panes, recycled and recyclable plastics, polyvinyl chloride- and brominated flame retardant-free components and smaller and lighter packaging.

Yet, sometimes, even relying largely on easily recycled material is not enough. When designing new plastic water bottles, for example, engineers at Nestlé Waters make sure to not add anything that reduces the quality of the PET—like the polyvinyl chlorinate other manufacturers include—to ensure the bottles can be recycled more easily.

The road ahead

Sometimes solutions are found underfoot. Literally. For instance, roads eventually need to be replaced, however long highway engineers design them to last. One stumbling block to recycling old road is the paving mat that’s often put down with the asphalt to strengthen the surface—a bit like reinforcing concrete with rebar. Unfortunately, these mats can clog milling equipment. To solve that problem, Owens Corning designed a mat that strengthens the road but will also break into small pieces when it comes time to be recycled.

While plastics and electronics are obvious candidates for improving recyclability, textiles fall off the radar despite being one of the major sources of waste. The Circle Market, an online trading platform for textiles, is standardising textile grades and terminology to make recycling them easier and more efficient.

Elsewhere, Ioniqa in The Netherlands has developed proprietary magnetic fluids that can strip and separate the colour out of coloured PET. The end product is recycled, colourless PET, which can be used like virgin plastic.

And a London-based start-up has created a novel solution to a major pollutant: plastic water bottles. Each year a billion end up in the oceans, while manufacturing them generates 300 million kilograms of CO2. In a joint effort with Imperial College scientists, Skipping Rocks Lab has designed edible and biodegradable packaging that can contain any beverage, including water, juice and even spirits. The proprietary material is based on seaweed and is cheaper to produce than plastic.

Although hurdles remain to recycling some materials, that’s likely to change. “In the future, we could see much less energy required for both extracting and recycling materials, as well as an overall reduced carbon footprint,” Wagger said. “In turn, we’ll see a more sustainable economy.”

What’s more, all companies could eventually be forced to recycle. When that day comes, those companies with a history of working with recycled materials and making recycled products could well find themselves in a stronger position than their less civic-minded rivals.

Ultimately, recyclable by design must make economic sense. Companies like Dell, through its closed-loop system, already save money. More surely lies ahead.

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