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RP Siegel headshot

United Technologies Sponsored Series

Sustainable Innovation: The Patience to Get it Right

How the Circular Economy Greens the World of Electronics

By RP Siegel

Other than humans, the rest of the planet's ecosystem works on a circular economy. Materials discarded in one part can feed or enrich another.

We humans -- having used up the better part of our readily-available resources, with no signs of slowing -- are beginning to recognize that a similar model might be a good idea for us, too.

It’s happening across a broad spectrum of our economy, and not always under a “green” umbrella. Take thrift stores, for example. Every time you buy a used item, you are helping to create a circular economy. At some other time and place, that stuff may have ended up in a landfill.

Retail giant H&M is taking that concept one step further with a new line of denim clothes that is produced from recycled denim. Some of these jeans, past the point of being re-sellable in a thrift store, were recovered through a garment collecting initiative in H&M's own stores.

Food waste is another material finding new life through circular-economy solutions: Animal feed, biofuels and compost are all being produced from food waste, along with other efforts aimed at avoiding that waste in the first place. Biorefineries are converting various waste streams into substitutes for petroleum fuels like “green diesel.”

Another area with great potential is electronics waste. Given the rapid pace of innovation, the flip side of which is obsolescence, we have created mountains of electronic waste containing a variety of dangerous materials.

Electronics recycling is not new. Third-party electronics recyclers have operated for years, stripping down devices and reselling components, often online. Then, retailers like Best Buy came along and added free collection of electronic items as a courtesy to their customers.

But the loop is finally closing as manufacturers like Dell incorporate design for the environment and specifically, recyclability, into their product development process. We spoke with Scott O’Connell, director of environmental affairs for Dell, to find out more about how the company designs for reuse and recycling.

Electronics and designing for the circular economy

O'Connell explained that Dell looks at the design process through the lens of circular economy. It helps the company "design out waste" through a product's entire life cycle.

Such efforts, he continued, begin in the initial design phase, a process they call "design for environment." For example, products can be built with disassembly in mind. Labelling parts can help recyclers handle them efficiently when a product reaches the end of life.

Modular design allows parts to be swapped out and upgraded with minimal effort, increasing the useful life of products. Dell regularly brings its design engineers to recycling centers so they can see how electronic materials are handled -- and it often leads to new ideas.

O’Connell shared a recent example: As a result of a recycling center visit, the team redesigned the Latitude series laptops so they have a single service access door, making service and recycling easier.

When it comes to end-of-life, Dell has a program called Dell Reconnect that started 10 years ago in partnership with Goodwill Industries. The program now hosts approximately 2,000 locations in the U.S., where consumers can drop off used electronic equipment of any brand. Some products can be refurbished and resold, while others can be broken down to separate useful components out, and then the rest is recycled.

Electronics recycling standards

Finally, there is the role of standards. If all computers use industry-standard plugs, sockets and sizes for various critical components, that creates a vibrant secondary market for parts. And such a market can capture significant value that would otherwise be wasted.

EPEAT is a multi-stakeholder process that includes NGOs, the Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies and all the major computer manufacturers, as well as a number of recyclers. It tracks and rates over 4,400 products, providing information to consumers.

Under the hood, technical standards are developed and maintained by the IEEE, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers. These provide specifications for things like Wi-Fi or video that all manufacturers must meet in order for the various devices to work together, which makes many devices interchangeable and also helps reduce waste.

Then there is ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, which provides a broad array of standards for many aspects of both electronic equipment and recycling. These include physical interfaces (14,776 standards), security techniques (27,037), the labeling of plastics (11,469), and many, many more.

Electronics will be with us for a long time, and we need to continue to develop the circular economy to reduce their impact on the planet.  Perhaps someday we will figure out a way to grow the materials needed to make them, and turn them into compost when they’re through to fertilize their replacements.

Images courtesy of Dell 

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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