As electronics have become increasingly ubiquitous, the never-ending upgrade churn fills an ever-larger e-graveyard. If that’s where the story ends, we’re in real trouble. The several years of use a typical device sees effectively become a short conveyor belt between mines around the world and the local landfill. The only sensible and sustainable thing to do is to recycle the materials in our devices—ideally right into the next generation of tech.

Responsible recycling operations (that don’t simply dump e-waste in developing countries) have an interesting set of challenges to work on. Recycling is always trying to catch up to—and is limited by—what manufacturers are doing. But opportunities are there for those willing to make it a priority.

To learn a little about the kinds of things that can be done now and what stands in the way of doing more, Ars talked to Dell about its recycling efforts. Dell runs a take-back program for old devices in partnership with Goodwill, which sells anything worth selling and sends the rest on.

Closing the Loop
In the last few years, Dell has started to move beyond just collecting e-waste for recyclers and is trying to “close the loop” by using some of the recycled material in its products—namely the plastic. Because a limited number of types of plastic get used for electronics, e-waste is a better resource to work with than your household recycling bin would be. Most of the plastic that comes in is suitable to be used in new products. But it’s not quite that simple—paints, labels, “soft-touch” coatings, and additives like flame retardants can render plastic difficult or even impossible to work with.

“The base material is a good place to start, but there’s still a good bit of engineering work to actually get the product to the point where the recycled plastics have the equivalent or better properties of virgin plastics, which is what we have to do to meet our specification needs,” Dell Director of Environmental Affairs and Global Responsibility Scott O’Connell told Ars.

All that plastic gets processed at a recycling plant in Texas run by Wistron, a manufacturer that was already handling refurbishing before it got into the e-waste business. One approach is to just shred the whole mess and sort the pieces, but workers at this plant dismantle devices by hand to separate materials more cleanly. Plastics with disqualifying characteristics head off in other directions; the rest is sorted by chemistry and color.

That plastic is shipped to Wistron’s operations in Kunshan, China, where a number of plastics manufacturers are located. (Unfortunately, e-waste collection efforts and manufacturing are on opposite sides of the planet.) Wistron’s plant, Senior Manager of Business Development Eric Huang explained, takes in dismantled plastic and spits out resin ready to be molded into something else.

That “something else” has so far been back panels for Dell’s monitors and all-in-ones. “We do encounter some potential for cosmetic issues and for performance issues [with pure recycled plastic],” O’Connell said. “Before we rolled this out in 2014, we had about a nine-month trial process where we actually had to do a lot of engineering work. What we found is, to get the properties right you do have to have a blend of recycled content along with virgin plastics.”

There’s more to this recycling thing than “melt and pour,” unfortunately. Part of the recycling process involves grinding up the plastic—sometimes more than once—and this changes its properties. At every step in the processing, and even in the design of the product, there are variables that could potentially be tweaked to increase the share of recycled plastic in the blend.

To read the full story, visit