Taking the lead on banning e-waste exports

Dell’s Crystynna Ewe speaks to Eco-Business about its Take Back unit in this week’s Sustainability Leaders Series

Dell's Crystynna Ewe
Crystynna Ewe, Dell's Take Back department head for Asia Pacific and Japan, greets Minister of State for Health Amy Khor during a previous Recycling Week event of Singapore's National Environment Agency. credit: Dell

Most people today clamour for the latest gadgets and electronics, be it a new 3D TV or a just-released smart phone. But how many people ever think about where these old or obsolete objects go?

Crystynna Ewe is one of those. Ewe is the regional head of Dell’s Take Back department for Asia Pacific and Japan. In this capacity, she oversees the recycling, reuse and reduction of discarded computers and other IT (information technology) items. She also leads other environmental and CSR efforts in the company such as community service. 

However, it is electronic waste or e-waste that keeps her pre-occupied. She says, “To date, we have collected more than 826 million pounds (374,667 metric tonnes) of used equipment, and we are on track to meet our global goal of recycling 1 billion pounds (or approximately 453,592 metric tonnes) of used technology by 2014.” In comparison, the world generates 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste every year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

E-waste, or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) to the UN, is a serious problem of the 21st century. It contains toxic chemicals that severely pollute land, water and air when disposed improperly. The lack of awareness regarding its health hazards is also a concern; and one disturbing statistic is that more than 90 per cent of computers thrown away by developed nations are dumped in developing countries like Pakistan, India, and even China.

Dell, Ewe says, addresses this dilemma. It is one of the few companies in the IT industry to provide a free recycling programme around the world. In fact, Ewe will represent Dell as one of the keynote speakers in Electronics Recycling Asia, a convention taking place in Singapore later in the year organised by the World Recycling Forum. Dell also recently released a statement announcing its new waste-free packaging commitment by 2020. Part of this initiative is turning wheat straw, an agricultural waste from China, into boxes. 

Ewe spoke about Dell’s e-waste recycling initiative in a recent interview with Eco-Business, where she also explained why the company does not endorse a specific recycling standard. 

Let’s start with Dell’s eco programme. When did this begin and what prompted the company to start this?

Dell has been actively engaged in recycling since the 90s. However, a fundamental turning point was when we began a grassroots recycling programme in 2003. We became aware of the challenges our customers were having with regard to disposal of old IT equipment and we started to work with our customers on a bespoke basis to solve this challenge for them. Over time that initial customer offering developed into the Dell IT Asset Disposal business where we can manage customer concerns with regard to data and where possible we can recover value for our customers. 

We also saw an opportunity to educate our consumers on how to effectively dispose of old IT equipment. For our consumers, we launched a ‘Free Consumer Recycling programme’ through which our customers can donate or recycle their old IT equipment.

We believe that we have since emerged as the clear leader among technology companies when it comes to recycling. We completed the rollout of our global recycling programme in 2006 and remain the only company in our industry to offer a free worldwide recycling programme for consumers.

Apart from this programme, what are your goals and initiatives for the Take Back department?

We are expanding our approach to sustainability through community service, with a goal of hitting 750,000 volunteer hours in the fiscal year of 2014. Every year we set out to meet and exceed the take back volumes required by recycling regulations around the globe. Our goal is to convert our customers everywhere to proper recycling practices ensuring that we maximise the lifecycle of our products, and recycle products that are not environmentally-friendly.

We are working in many locations globally with governments, NGOs and academics encouraging the development of regulations and infrastructures that will provide the foundation for proper collection and treatment of old and discarded IT. In both our flat-panel monitors and OptiPlex desktops, we use recycled-content plastic from sources such as beverage bottles and CD cases to create the plastic housing of the desktops and backing of the monitors. 

Is this connected to the e-waste programme? If so, how does this work exactly?

Yes, the e-waste programme is part of what Dell’s Take Back department handles. We began our e-waste programme in 2006, offering consumers in India the chance to facilitate responsible product retirement (or the proper handling, dismantling and disposition of equipment that has ceased to be useful).

Our e-waste or recycling programme caters to the needs of our consumers. Our Global Free Recycling programme is available in 78 countries. We also offer scheduled pick-ups based on customer requests irrespective of their locations. Collections are free of charge for consumers.

It is not a question of disclosing our recycling vendors. It is increasingly about the standards to which we hold them accountable for the services they deliver to us.

Basically, the company offers consumers free recycling for any Dell branded product at any time, and free recycling for products of other brands with any purchase of new Dell equipment. In addition, for our business customers, we also have our Asset Resale and Recycling programme, a value-added service offering, targeted for companies with more than 20 assets to dispose of.

Dell was the first company to stop exporting nonworking electronics to developing countries - a common industry practice. Why did it do this?

Yes, in 2009, Dell was the first major computer manufacturer to ban the export of electronic waste to developing countries as part of its global policy on responsible electronics disposal. This underscores Dell’s long-standing commitment to responsibly manage sensitive electronic waste through final disposal. Dell’s global policy aims to prevent the unauthorized dumping of electronic waste in developing countries by requiring that equipment be tested and certified as working prior to export to developing countries. Additionally, by articulating our position on e-waste exportation in forums and engagements with external stakeholders, we hope to encourage other technology vendors to state their policy on electronics disposal.

What do you think of critics though who say that while this is commendable, Dell has not disclosed its recycling vendors and that it still uses the supposedly weaker R2 standard which allows export of certain equipment?

We believe standards can help the electronics recycling industry be more responsible and institute practices that protect the environment and human health and safety in addition to creating a level playing field for companies operating in the market. However, we don’t offer our endorsement to any one recycling standard at this time. Our own standards for our environmental partners exceed the requirements of any existing industry standard and it can be viewed in our website.

And we do not publish our list of partners as it is subject to change to optimise quality and cost. We do, however, post our environmental partner standards and encourage feedback on how we can better assess and monitor our environmental partner network on an on-going basis.

Besides, it is not a question of disclosing our recycling vendors. It is increasingly about the standards to which we hold them accountable for the services they deliver to us. Dell, for example, has developed an Environmental Partner Performance standard, which is among the best in the industry. These standards define the minimum requirements for electronic disposition programmes. We have built a robust governance process around this. Dell’s standards for our environmental partners globally, as well as for our associated global audited programmes, exceed any existing programme we’ve reviewed to date.

Is it possible that to reduce e-waste in the long-term, companies should extend the lifecycle of their products? Does Dell have any innovative solution in the works? 

We design all Dell products and solutions with the environment in mind and without sacrificing performance or reliability. We are committed to developing innovative products that help you do more while minimising your environmental impact. Product lifetime is often extended through re-use by another user. Technology products are in high demand and markets do exist for good quality second-hand products. Functional products that may appear out-dated to the original end-user may be suitable for re-use by another end-user, thus, extending the products’ lifespan and reducing the environmental impact.

We maximise lifecycles through the use of our Asset Resale and Recycling programme and our donation programmes. We are constantly working to increase the availability of these programmes in more countries. Services such as extended warranties also encourage customers to retain equipment longer and our ability to repair and re-use parts is a key contributor to maximising produce life cycles.

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