What The Dell? Design Out Toxics!

by Daniel Kessler

May 27, 2010

On Tuesday, Greenpeace held a protest at computer giant Dell’s Round Rock, Texas headquarters over the company’s backtracking on its public commitment to eliminate key toxic chemicals in its products by 2009. Our decision to directly communicate with the company’s leadership and employees was not taken lightly — it was reached after it became clear that Dell is not moving quickly enough to honor its public to phase out the use of toxics by 2011.

Our message, delivered on Dell’s campus with an enormous banner suspended from the roof, was addressed to CEO Michael Dell and read: “Michael, What the Dell? Delete Toxics Now.” The protest follows similar demonstrations against Dell at its offices in Bangalore, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Greenpeace is pressuring Dell around the world to let the company and the public know that while Dell’s competitors are phasing out the use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), Dell is falling behind and is contributing to the mounting e-waste problem that is poisoning communities in places like China and in West African nations.

PVC and BFRs are highly toxic and can release dioxin, a known carcinogen, when burned. With the growing tsunami of electronic waste being shipped to developing countries for open burning, workers who deal with e-waste are at the most significant risk for health impacts. Eliminating these substances will decrease exposure to workers and consumers and will increase the recyclability and reusability of electronic products.

The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tons generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this: If the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train, it would go all the way around the world. E-waste now makes up five percent of all municipal solid waste worldwide, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging, but much more hazardous. And it’s not only developed countries that generate e-waste: Asia discards an estimated 12 million tons each year.

E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the municipal solid waste stream, due largely to people upgrading their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before. In Europe, e-waste is increasing at three to five percent a year, almost three times faster than the total waste stream. Developing countries are also expected to triple their e-waste production over the next five years.

Greenpeace and Consumer Electronics

For the past five years, Greenpeace has been campaigning for electronics companies to reduce toxic chemicals usage and improve take-back and responsible recycling programs. This involves regular meetings with many of these companies to exchange information and discuss company progress and relevant industry developments.

Our primary tool for tracking the progress of consumer electronics companies is the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, which is updated quarterly. In the latest version of the Guide, both Apple and HP moved up, their scores fueled by having new computer lines free of PVC and BFRs, demonstrating the technical feasibility and supply chain readiness of producing alternatives to these hazardous substances. Dell stands in 10th place, having been penalized in the previous ranking for its backtracking on PVC/BFR phase out.

There is still time for Dell to do the right thing and honor its commitment to phase out toxic PVC and BFRs. As an electronics industry leader, Dell’s move would be seen as a true game changer. People concerned with Dell’s toxics backtracking can take action.

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