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The Tech Revolution Has a Trashy Secret

Since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958, electronic technology has become indispensable to modern life. Personal computers, mobile phones and a host of convenient appliances have led to spectacular advances in productivity and economic growth, and facilitated social interaction on an unprecedented global scale. Yet this prosperity has a price. The rate of technological innovation ensures that many devices are simply waiting to be discarded for their next generation, resulting in a mountain of electronic waste that grows higher every year.

Piles of electronic waste. (Image Credit: Curtis Palmer / Flickr)

Piles of electronic waste. (Image Credit: Curtis Palmer / Flickr)

In 2014, an estimated 41.8 million tonnes of electronic equipment was thrown in the garbage. According to the United Nations, as much as 90 percent of this e-waste is illegally dumped or traded every year, constituting a major threat to public health and tens of billions of dollars in unreclaimed resources.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented amount of electronic waste rolling out over the world,” Achim Steiner, the UN Under-Secretary General and executive director of the UN Environment Program, said in May 2015.

Agbogbloshie near Accra, Ghana, 2012. (Image Credit: Lantus / WikiMedia Commons)

Agbogbloshie, Ghana, 2012. (Image Credit: Lantus / WikiMedia Commons)

Much of this e-waste (predicted to grow by 33 percent over the next three years) is being illegally transported to developing countries like Ghana, where acres of televisions, laptops, cameras, cell phones and assorted gadgets are picked apart for scrap. The toxic consequences to those who deal in this scrap cannot be overstated. The soil under Agbogbloshie, the world’s largest dumpsite for electronic waste, is so saturated with lead that it is 45 times more toxic than the U.S. safety standard.

Yet this excess of horrors is not without mercy. A few short years ago, Dell, Inc., the third-largest PC vendor in the world, decided to change how its products impact the planet. The company’s 2020 Legacy of Good Plan aims to reduce their technological footprint and grow their environmental accountability.

The 2020 Legacy of Good Plan

Dell’s Legacy of Good Plan includes 21 ambitious goals for improving the company’s environmental impact by 2020. A few highlights:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its facilities and operations by 50 percent
  • Reusing or reducing its use of fresh water in water-stressed regions by 20 percent
  • Ensuring 90 percent of waste generated in Dell-operated buildings is diverted from landfills
  • Demonstrating 100 percent transparency of key issues within its supply chain
  • Ensuring 100 percent of product packing is sourced from sustainable materials
  • Reducing the energy intensity of its product portfolio by 80 percent
  • Using 50 million pounds of recycled-content plastic and other sustainable materials in its products
  • Ensuring 100 percent of Dell packaging is recyclable or compostable
  • Recovering two billion pounds of used electronics

The other goals include improvements to employee and community quality of life, as well as the 21st goal: That the good that will come from Dell technology will be 10 times what it takes to create and use it. Speaking to Planet Experts, Dell’s Global Sustainability Brand Manager, Stephen Roberts, admitted that last one will be difficult to quantify.

Stephen Roberts, Global Sustainability Brand Manager for Dell, Inc.

Stephen Roberts, Global Sustainability Brand Manager for Dell, Inc.

After all, he said, “how do you measure ‘good?’ We kind of went into that goal not knowing exactly what we were going to do, but recognizing it as something to aspire to.”

Dell has created a working group dedicated to exploring that concept. “We are looking to create a ‘net positive’ effect. How can you put more back into the system than you take out? If you think about it in just one area, in terms of carbon emissions,” Roberts explained, “how can you use technology in a way that cuts your overall carbon footprint by more than what the use of that technology adds to your footprint?”

For Roberts, that means looking at what technology can enable. “There’s an amazing potential there to do more good than the footprint it creates,” he said.

It’s a consideration that is steadily gaining traction in the business world, as evidenced by the major commitments to sustainability made by the private sector at COP21. Nations are promising to transition away from fossil fuels, and businesses are making even bolder commitments to clean and renewable energies. The COP, said Roberts, was a global affirmation of their ongoing efforts.

By reducing the materials it uses, Dell has also saved itself a significant chunk of change. Since 2009, the company has cut 31 million pounds of packaging out of its supply chain and saved $53 million. While saving money isn’t the ultimate goal of the Legacy of Good Plan, Roberts acknowledged that the plan will succeed in the long term on the strength of its economic viability.

“If it’s going to work as a viable business solution, it has to make economic sense as well as social and environmental sense,” he said. “We used less stuff. We used materials that were much more sustainable, meaning they created less of a burden on the overall system. In the long run, it saved us money.”

To reduce the packaging, said Roberts, the company focused on “The Three C’s”: Reducing the “cube” (the size of the packaging), adjusting the “content” (producing it from a more sustainable source) and making it “curbside recyclable” (leaving the customer with less waste and in a form that can be returned to the economy). 

Making “Real, Measurable Progress” in Reducing Waste

With four years to the deadline, Roberts says the transition is “seeing real, measurable progress” in all sectors. Of course, because the Legacy of Good Plan encompasses every aspect of the company’s infrastructure, each of its 21 goals advances at a different pace.

“A good example is, we have a goal of reducing the energy intensity of our entire product portfolio by 80 percent. I would love to think that there’s this nice straight line that goes from 100 down to 20, but that’s not how we create products,” said Roberts. “There’s cycles to these things, [and] each of the goals has for the most part a stop and start to it. We made a lot of progress the first year, a little bit of progress this last year. I expect that this coming year [2016] we’ll see another big jump, just because the cycles of how we create things. Today, we’ve reduced the energy intensity of the entire product portfolio by 30.1 percent.”

What does that mean for the average customer? It means that, compared to customers who bought Dell products in 2012, customers who bought Dell products in 2015 will spend $450 million less on electricity costs over the lifetime of their purchases. “And that’s only at that 30 percent number,” added Roberts. “There’s obvious advantages to refreshing, but it proves this energy efficiency really benefits everybody.”

Michael Dell: “This Is the Direction [the Company] Needs to Go”

The Legacy of Good Plan originated with Dell’s 2012 “Powering the Possible” campaign, a commitment to creating a shared value for the company, its customers, society and the planet. This commitment would take its most visible form in the creation of a social media command center for the American Red Cross, but it would also impact the way Dell did business. After 18 months of dialogue with customers, stakeholders and the industry itself, the company decided to transform how it managed aspects of its supply chain.

During that period, Dell also made the controversial transformation from a public to a private company. In 2013, Michael Dell (Dell’s founder, chairman and chief executive officer), in partnership with global technology investment firm Silver Lake, acquired Dell in the largest technology buyout in history (eclipsed only by Dell’s own buyout of data storage company EMC in 2015). The formal launch of the 2020 Plan occurred not long after, having lost none of its momentum in the transition.

According to Roberts, “Michael’s own approach was, ‘It doesn’t matter if we’re a public or private company, this is the direction we need to go.’”

What’s in a Name?

Actor, filmmaker and green advocate Adrian Grenier has testified to Michael Dell’s commitment to sustainability. For Dell, he said, it’s personal.

Grenier was appointed Dell’s first Social Good Advocate in early 2015, a position he didn’t accept lightly. When Planet Experts spoke with Grenier at the Earth to Paris summit at COP21, the actor explained that he’s often tapped by companies looking to greenwash their brands.

Adrian Grenier addresses a panel made up of Paul Bunje of the XPRIZE Foundation, Aimée Christensen of Christensen Global Strategies and John Woolard, Vice-President of Energy at Google. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

Adrian Grenier addresses a panel made up of Paul Bunje of the XPRIZE Foundation, Aimée Christensen of Christensen Global Strategies and John Woolard, Vice-President of Energy at Google. (Photo Credit: Nicole Landers)

“I’ve learned to gauge whether or not people mean it or if it’s just a PR stunt,” he said. “Whenever I get railroaded by PR teams, you start to realize it’s a lot of greenwashing or nonsense.” When Grenier sat down with Dell to discuss the company’s vision, he emphasized that he was putting his name on the line. Michael Dell said he knew exactly how he felt.

Every Dell product that ends up in a landfill has Michael’s name on it, said Grenier. That’s not a problem for the Microsofts, Apples or HPs out there, and it’s not something Mr. Dell can ignore.

Since partnering with Dell, Grenier has expanded their environmental ambitions to the ocean, which is brimming with hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic waste. “We’re looking at ways to take out or prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean,” he said. Dell has also helped Grenier launch the Lonely Whale Foundation, a platform for teaching students empathy, communication and ocean and environmental science.

It’s Just Better (and Cheaper) This Way

For Dell employees, said Roberts, one of the most interesting aspects of adopting the Legacy of Good Plan is just how easy making some of the changes can be. For example, to cushion its boxes, the company has begun to use wheat straw in lieu of paper-based materials. It’s a completely practical alternative: Wheat straw is readily available and rarely recycled, as opposed to paper, which requires the destruction of trees. There was no reason not to use it before; they just weren’t.

“It’s not that it’s this radical idea,” explained Roberts, “it’s just that somebody was able to look at it and say, ‘Hey, this is a natural fiber. What if we could break this stuff down that’s grown everywhere and use it like we use other fibers for paper? It’s just being discarded by the farmers.’ No one had tried that, and our partners developed an enzyme to make it work.”

Simple changes like that have major impacts when you’re one of the biggest tech companies in the world. All it takes is the willingness to explore.

“It’s a matter of trust and a matter of discovery,” said Roberts.

To follow Dell’s progress as it completes its Legacy of Good goals, check out the Legacy of Good website

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