Where do laptops go when they die?

1st November 2016 | Recycling

Electronics have become increasingly ubiquitous, but what happens when they die? Most devices last for several years and then they are upgraded or overtaken by new technological developments, and then often promptly proceed to landfill. The smart thing to do is to recycle the materials in the devices – and ideally use them to make the next generation of devices.

There are challenges associated with responsible recycling operations: recycling is always trying to catch up to – and is limited by – what manufacturers are doing. But for those willing to make it a priority there are huge opportunities opening up for them.

Dell runs a take-back programme for old devices in partnership with Goodwill, which sells anything worth selling and sends the rest on. 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 materials in its products – namely the plastic. As electronics uses a limited number of plastics, there e-waste is a better resource for recycling than the average household bin: most of the plastic coming in is suitable for use in new products. However, it isn’t quite so simple – paints, labels, coatings and additives can render plastic difficult or 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,” Scott O’Connell, Dell Director of Environmental Affairs and Global Responsibility, said.

The plastic is processed at a recycling plant in Texas run by Wistron: rather than just shred everything and sort through the mess, devices are dismantled to separate materials more cleanly.

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