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The challenge may seem overwhelming: Roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year, and there will be more plastic than fish by 2050 if we do nothing. But a battle is brewing against ocean plastics, and one tech giant is urging other corporations to join the fight.
Dell has taken the first step in commercially scaling an ocean plastics recycling program. This summer, the Round Rock, Texas–based technology company began shipping its new XPS 13 laptop in packaging trays made from 25 percent marine plastic, or, more accurately, plastic that was collected from waterways in Haiti before it reached the open sea. (The other 75 percent is recycled plastic of the high-density polyurethane sort.)
In all, the new program — for which Dell teamed up with actor and environmental activist Adrian Grenier and his Lonely Whale Foundation — will capture 16,000 pounds of plastic this year. The company says the program is cost effective and now hopes to increase that amount to 20,000 pounds next year. In addition, Dell plans to continue exploring other ways these materials can be used for packaging and possibly products.
This is all good news, though still a proverbial drop in the plastic bucket — hence, the call to action.
“We don’t think we can do it alone. Other like-minded companies need to participate so we can set standards on how you collect the material, what you consider ocean plastic, and how you use it,” says David Lear, executive director of corporate sustainability at Dell.
Dell and the Lonely Whale Foundation are planning to convene a cross-industry working group in the coming months. Lear says, “We’re trying to get as many people involved as we can. We’ve invited our competitors to the table. This is a problem that industry as a whole, not just our industry, can help solve by creating demand. If that happens, we think we can really make a dent.”
Dell decided to focus on intercepting things like single-use plastic bottles, cups, and straws before they drift into the open sea, because they’re easier to recover that way. Some scientists agree that it makes the most sense to address the problem at the source, before the material begins to break down into smaller pieces and gets ingested by birds, fish, and other marine life.
The company sees the potential to create jobs in local communities, in places like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where it began the program because its research showed that a large amount of ocean plastics come from there. Other potential locations include India, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which according to a white paper discussing Dell’s approach, have and will continue to produce the greatest amount of plastic waste destined to end up in the ocean.
These countries are definitely a good place to start. A study published in 2015 by the Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment found that as much as 60 percent of marine plastics comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. And it’s projected that by 2025, plastic consumption in Asia will increase by a mind-blowing 80 percent to surpass 200 million tons.
The study suggests that all this growth in plastic pollution in Asia is resulting from the rapid economic growth, reduced poverty, and improved quality of life that these emerging countries are experiencing. That’s positive, for sure, but as these economies grow, so does consumer use of plastic and plastic-intensive goods. And these countries do not yet have waste-management infrastructures that can tackle the accompanying excess waste.
“Specifically, interventions in these five countries could reduce global plastic-waste leakage by approximately 45 percent over the next ten years,” the study says, pointing out that we shouldn’t stop there. “Of course, extending these interventions to other countries could have even more impact on this global issue.”
According to the report’s authors, some of the best ways to deal with plastic waste in the highlighted countries include collection services, closing leakage points in collection facilities, gasification (converting waste into fuel), and recycling.
It should be said that the real source is usage: the ridiculous amount of single-use plastics human beings purchase and toss into the trash. Environmentalists argue that the main focus should be on avoiding the use of plastic in the first place, at least as much as possible.
Still, as Boyan Slat, the Dutch wunderkind entrepreneur who plans to clean up the “great Pacific garbage patch,” points out, we shouldn’t view this as an either-or proposition. When dealing with a crisis of this scale, everything that works and doesn’t do more harm than good should be on the table.
“We are about to give people hope, and I think hope makes people want to do something,” Slat recently told the Verge. “If you really think that the ocean will be polluted forever, there’s no way to make it go back to zero again, why bother?”
Slat’s startup, the Ocean Cleanup, is slated to begin its efforts in 2018.
Not Its First Recycling Rodeo
While the marine plastics initiative is the latest of Dell’s efforts to tackle waste, it’s certainly not its first. The company’s packaging innovation has also led it to use various sustainable products, including wheat straw, bamboo, and mushrooms. The goal, set in 2013 as part of the “Dell 2020 Legacy of Good Plan,” is to ensure that 100 percent of Dell packaging is either recyclable or compostable when customers are finished with it.
The company has also been a leader in reducing e-waste, going all the way back to 2000. That’s when Dell became one of the first technology companies to develop product take-back programs, giving both commercial and corporate customers the opportunity to return used computers and other electronics. These programs now span 83 countries and territories.
In the United States, Dell has partnered with Goodwill Industries since the program’s beginning, and today there are more than 2,000 locations where the nonprofit takes in used Dell products and refurbishes them when possible. Everything else gets sent to one of the company’s recycling partners, which Dell strictly audits. For example, these partners cannot ship materials overseas, where they often end up in toxic e-waste dumps.
In 2013, Dell set the ambitious aim of collecting 2 billion pounds of electronics by 2020. But rather than simply making sure its old computers were reused or somehow recycled, the company became the first in the industry to develop a “closed loop” recycling plan, meaning it would reuse some materials in its own products.
To that end, Dell set another 2020 goal that 50 million pounds of the materials it collects — we’re talking about the plastics and carbon fibers used to make the body of a laptop or monitor — would live a second life as part of a Dell product. Then, just two months ago, the company raised that goal from 50 million to 100 million pounds.
“We focus a lot on the product itself. That’s our big footprint,” says Lear.
Dell is also focused on helping others reduce their environmental impact—specifically, the role technology will play in solving the enormous social and environmental problems we face. Dell believes information technology will be key to addressing poverty, health care needs, dwindling food and water supplies, and climate change.
Dubbed Net Positive, the company’s capstone goal is that by 2020, the good that will come from technology will be 10 times what it takes to create and use it.
Looks like we’ll be checking back in 2020.