March 18, 2003

See background info

(A multigroup press release)
Contacts: David Wood - GRRN
  Robin Schneider
Texas Campaign for the Environment
  Ted Smith
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

Dell Computer Corporation stumbles into
computer recycling with no obvious plans
for a comprehensive solution

Madison, WI - Under increasing pressure from campus activists, environmentalists, investors, and state legislatures to address the public health threats from discarded computers, Austin, TX-based Dell Computer Corporation continues down the electronics recycling low road without any obvious plans to implement a comprehensive, effective solution. According to the national Computer TakeBack Campaign (, Dell is focusing its efforts on public relations opportunities rather than taking responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.

“We fully assume Dell has plans to organize flashy one-day computer collection events across the country around Earth Day this coming April,” says David Wood, organizing director of the Computer TakeBack Campaign and program director of GrassRoots Recycling Network. “One-day collection events are a tiny piece of the solution, but certainly do not approximate a long-term solution; 365 one-day events would come closer. Earth Day presents a wonderful marketing opportunity for Dell to create the appearance of responsibility and industry leadership. Dell should make every day Earth Day.”

In particular, the Campaign has been sharply critical of Dell’s reliance on prison labor to provide a recycling “solution” to customers who are increasingly demanding free and convenient take back opportunities. In a letter to CEO Michael Dell, the Campaign reiterated its demand that Dell sever its relationship with the UNICOR, the federal prison industries. (Attached)

The Computer TakeBack Campaign is pushing extended producer responsibility for discarded computers and consumer electronics, the powerfully simply notion that brand owners and producers should be financially responsible for the life-cycle impacts of the products. By shifting the financial burden of managing discarded products off of taxpayers and local governments and back on to the brand owners, producer responsibility policies create a powerful market incentive for companies to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in computers and to design products to be easily upgraded, reused or recycled.

The Computer TakeBack Campaign is targeting Dell Computer because of the company’s market leadership and because their business model is particularly well suited to comprehensive product take-back programs. The Campaign is pushing to make recycling a computer as easy as buying one.

Dell Computer responded to growing pressure by introducing a limited computer equipment recycling program (“Dell Exchange”) that offers consumers information on donating, reselling or recycling their old computers. Dell Exchange permits consumers to mail back, at a cost of $20 - $40 per machine, used equipment for recycling. Thus far, Dell has failed to reveal how many machines have been recycled through this program, or any goals or benchmarks to evaluate its success.

What Dell does not tell consumers is that the used equipment is mailed to one of several Federal Prisons where the equipment is dismantled by inmate laborers working for UNICOR, the federal prison industries. Reliance on taxpayer subsidized prison labor for computer recycling undercuts development of the free market infrastructure necessary to handle the hundreds of millions of obsolete computers in the United States. Prison laborers fall through the cracks of worker health and safety protections, which are necessary when managing electronic products containing lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants and other toxic substances.

The Computer TakeBack Campaign is convinced that Dell’s unique sales and business model positions the company to implement reverse logistics systems to recover used computer equipment, resulting in increased market share and customer loyalty. Dell Computer has not seriously investigated reverse logistics opportunities.

Rather, the company has sought public relations opportunities to deflect attention away from comprehensive solutions. Dell co-sponsored a one-day computer collection event at the Washington Monument on America Recycles Day as well as the Bush EPA’s “Plug in to Recycling” consumer education announcement.

“Dell Computer’s executives are banking on a winning PR campaign at the same time activists are advancing comprehensive legislation in as many as ten states around the country,” says Robin Schneider, Executive Director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and leader of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. “Consumers, policy makers, journalists, and investors need to ask the important questions about the company’s commitment to a real e-waste solution.”

Some of the key questions suggested by the Computer TakeBack Campaign include:

  • What have been the results to date of the consumer mail back program offered through Dell Exchange?
  • Why does Dell operate a global double standard, offering product take back programs for all consumers in Europe at no additional cost but offering only limited programs at significant additional cost here in the United States?
  • What testing or compliance certification does Dell require of the equipment recycling programs operated by UNICOR in federal prisons?
  • HP/Compaq has indicated their willingness to internalize the cost of equipment take-back and recycling; what is Dell’s position on cost-internalization?
  • Has Dell discussed with investors and financial analysts the risks and financial implications of the e-waste problem or the impacts of pending state legislation requiring brand owners to bear financial responsibility?
  • Dell has said that it uses an EPA-certified electronics recycler. However, the EPA does not have a certification program for electronics recycler. Is Dell referring to registration, which anyone can submit without inspections or standards?
  • Is Dell expecting additional protests at up-coming computer recycling events, of the sort witnessed at the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas?


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