Enviros Give Dell a (Barely) Passing Grade

Hopeful signs – but continuing challenges – for electronic recycling effort

TCE's Robin Schneider unveils the report card.
TCE's Robin Schneider unveils the report card. (Photo By John Anderson)

The conflict over the recycling of electronic waste took a turn for the better over the past two weeks, according to both environmental activists and the high tech companies they are pressuring. On May 12, Dell Inc. announced that it has set a fiscal year 2005 goal of increasing its recovery rate of used computer products by 50% over FY 2004, which ended Jan. 30. Simultaneously, Dell released its 2004 Sustainability Report, a 62-page "update on the company's progress on a number of environmental and social initiatives over the past year."

A week later, the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a coalition of enviro groups pushing manufacturers of computers and other electronic products to take responsibility for the toxic materials in obsolete equipment, released its fifth annual "Computer Report Card," grading 29 companies on their progress toward that goal.

Dell's announcement pleased the activists, and likewise Dell enjoyed the CTBC report card – the Round Rock-based market leader moved from being rated an "environmental laggard" last year to earning a green grade this year that was second only to Hewlett-Packard.

Dell and HP were also praised for declaring support for the "Statement of Principles on Producer Responsibility for U.S. Electronic Waste," a document crafted by the CTBC, which states, among other things, "Manufacturers and producers accept responsibility for continually improving the environmental aspects of the design of their products and for the end-of-life management of their products."

But both sides were cautious to describe this progress as only a beginning. "If we estimate a five year average age of returned product, our recovery rates this year represent less than 10% of Dell-branded products sold in 2000. ... We're happy with the direction of the numbers, but we must increase our recovery rates," said Pat Nathan, Dell's sustainable business director, in a statement. Likewise, the report card's authors stated that, "Although Hewlett Packard and Dell earned the highest score for their bold leadership, these two companies barely managed to achieve a passing grade." Reflecting this sentiment, the highest of the four rating categories on the card was labeled merely "The Beginners," followed by "Those Trailing the Beginners," "Still at the Starting Gate," and "The Bench Warmers." Only HP, Dell, and NEC received the highest rating. (Dallas-based Texas Instruments was a Bench Warmer.)

Robin Schneider, director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and the CTBC's point person leading the charge to pressure Dell, said Dell's improved score came because "they realized it wasn't a PR problem, it was a real problem, and they started to address it as such." The CTBC first targeted Dell because of its market-leader status, beginning in March 2002, challenging Dell for ineffective recycling programs lacking transparency, and for using prison labor, possibly undercutting the for-profit recycling industry. Since then, Schneider and other activists have appeared at Dell's annual shareholder meetings – as proxies for individual shareholders or for "socially responsible" investment firms – to directly speak to and criticize company founder and CEO Michael Dell.

"The dialogue started mostly with PR professionals," Schneider said. "Luckily, we got past that about a year ago, where Dell had assigned someone internally to really address the issues, not on a PR level but an organizational level, and that's when the progress really started. ... About March of this year, the dialogue became more substantive, and the changes in their program became more substantive.

"I think they went for a cheap, quick fix with the prison labor early on, and realized eventually that that was not going to cut it; that charging people $50 to recycle was not going to result in much recycling. ... If they wanted measurable progress, they were going to have to much more seriously engage, and they did, to their credit."

The survey scored the companies based on a 19-question survey, with varying points scored per question. With 101 as a perfect score, Dell scored 52.5, just behind HP's 54.5 and just ahead of NEC's 49.5. The "Trailing" category scores ranged from 47.5 down to 32 points, and most other companies received a score of zero, many for failing to answer the survey at all. The questions covered a variety of topics, including what types of programs the companies have in place; whether they or contractors export hazardous waste to Third World countries; and whether they support legislation to require e-waste recycling, among others.

Schneider says major future goals of the campaign include getting companies to support take-back legislation at the state level, and creating a system that does not leave taxpayers shouldering the burden. Responding to Dell's report, Schneider said, "There were a lot of positive things in it. But the problems, the challenges, they put on the bottom of page 60. And the interesting thing about those challenges is that they mirror a lot of the recommendations we've had for what a company needs to do. So, we're talking in the same language more and more, which is a good sign, but there are still very significant challenges ahead of us."

To read Dell's 2004 Sustainability Report, go to www.dell.com/environment; to read the Computer TakeBack Campaign's Fifth Annual Computer Report Card, go to www.svtc.org.

The Computer Report Card

Companies with scores above zero filled out the CTBC survey; companies with zeroes but listed as "Still at the Starting Gate" did not fill out the survey but at least provided some response to CTBC. Companies listed as "Bench Warmers" did not respond in any way.

The Beginners

Hewlett-Packard 54.5

Dell 52.5

NEC 49.5

Those Trailing the Beginners

IBM 47.5

Sony 42.5

Toshiba 40.0

Apple 37.0

Philips 34.5

Lexmark 32.0

Still at the Starting Gate

eMachines 0

Gateway 0

Sharp 0

Panasonic 0

The Bench Warmers

Acer 0


Brother 0

Canon 0

Daewoo 0

Epson 0

Fujitsu 0

Hitachi 0

Lucky Goldstar 0

Oki 0

Seiko 0

Samsung 0

Sun Microsystems 0

Texas Instruments 0

ViewSonic 0

Wyse Technology 0

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Computer Recycling, Electronic waste, e-waste, Dell, Texas Campaign for the Environment, Computer TakeBack Campaign, Hewlett Packard, Computer Report Card

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