Dell: IT industry slow to action over recycling

Dell's global sustainable business director says manufacturers are working hard to tackle a legacy of inaction over equipment disposal
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

Ahead of impending EU legislation that will force manufacturers and customers alike to take more responsibility for IT waste -- the industry has begun to wake up to the whole recycling issue.

Dell recently became the latest vendor to beef up the recycling services available to its UK business and consumer customer by extending schemes previously only available in the US.

ZDNet UK spoke with the company’s global sustainable business director Pat Nathan about the potential impact of the EU Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive (WEEE) and who will end-up covering the costs of going green.

Do you think the IT industry has been a bit short-sighted in its approach to the life-cycle of equipment and has been too focused on consuming rather than disposal?
I think it is a very young industry and one that was not thinking as far ahead as it should have. One of the effects of the WEEE directive is to make us think harder about what should go into machines in the first place such as minimising or eliminate things like lead, cadmium, and mercury. We are also looking to make systems easier to recycle by marking the plastic with the type of plastic it is to ease the sorting and recycling process.

Can you give some more examples of what Dell is doing to make its PCs greener?
Things such as making systems smaller, the smaller they are the less fossil fuel it takes to ship them, the less packaging that is required. We are also trying to switch from CRTs to flat panels -- you get rid of the lead that way -- and use fewer screws so that things are easy to disassemble.

What percentage of your machines are you recycling at the moment and where would you like to get to?
It's a great question. Looking at the age of the systems and what our market share was at that point, my best estimates are less than 10 percent. I am confident that it is more than five but less than 10 -- it's a relatively small number. Certainly the survey data we did in the UK points to around 10 percent.

Has the WEEE directive had a big influence on your recycling initiatives or would Dell have taken this approach without legislative pressure?
I definitely think the WEEE directive has had a bearing on all our service decisions. While the directive hasn't been converted into legislation yet, we pretty much know what the end result is going to be, bar ironing out a few details.

Gartner claims that complying with WEEE is going to cost consumers in the long run by adding $60 to the price of European PCs. What estimates have you made internally?
There is an old saying that you measure with a calliper, cut with a chainsaw; I think that might apply in this instance.

I think it is really, really challenging to understand what the costs are going to be at this early stage. How do you calculate your take-up rates to work out those costs? What is going to happen as more people start recycling to the recycling costs? If the volumes of the recycling firms go up by 400 to 500 percent, more than likely you are going to get a more efficient process and that will change the dynamics of recycling.

How does WEEE compare to what is happening in the US? Is Europe being more proactive?
In the US it is a state by state approach as opposed to a national solution which is the analogy I would use with the EU directive. But the US is working towards a national approach and I have a weekly call to tackle that as a state by state solution isn't going to work. California and Maine have passed legislation but they are very different pieces of legislation. For businesses and consumers how do you remember that in California you do this, Maine I do that? If you have businesses in both places you have to set your prices differently.

It is easier for everyone to have this done at a national level. But it should be remembered that it is not clear how uniform WEEE will be across Europe at this point -- only Greece and Germany have converted at this point I think.

Have you got any idea of how many units you are expecting to have to deal with over the next six months?
At this point with the awareness so low it's a bit of crap-shoot to tell you the truth to understand what the numbers could be. We have a corporate goal of increasing our take-back by 50 percent year on year.

Who should take responsibility for machines that were manufactured by vendors who may not be in that sector any more or even in existence?
We refer to that kind of equipment as 'orphan waste' where the manufacturer is no longer in business. That is definitely going to be a shared responsibility that we are all going to have to address and it's one of the reasons that we take back anybody's kit.

For businesses I would strongly encourage them when they are buying kit to be asking at the point they buy it: what is going to happen to this kit when I do buy it? Are you going to be responsible and put this in the bid? If they have old kit they should be asking their current suppliers to take that back.

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