Moving From Theory to Practice With the Crawl-Walk-Run Model

There is a looming shadow over the planet’s economy. The population is heading to 8 billion by 2025 and the ranks of the middle class will likely swell to 3 billion, with most of those people adopting the higher consumption patterns of their new cohort. This demographic challenge is entwined with resource constraints and the specter of climate change-related disruptions, painting a disturbing picture of the future.

Forward-thinking companies, however, recognize there is a business opportunity not just to “do good,” but also to make money—estimates show a full-fledged shift to the circular economy could add $1 trillion or more to the economy. For this shift to happen, however, businesses need to move from theory to practice at scale.

THE CRAWL-WALK-RUN MODEL

It would be a mistake to believe that Dell one day decided to “go circular.” It was an evolution born out of a long-standing commitment to being efficient with roots in our direct sales model and an emphasis on energy efficiency.

For years we incorporated recycled-content materials into product designs. We also had a strong global take-back program that recovered many tons of materials from end-of-life products. Eventually, the question became: why not use the plastics we recover as a raw material for our products (instead of buying recycled-content plastics on the open market)?

CRAWL

We conducted a feasibility test to understand how we might use some of these plastics. After (much) trial and error, we established a formula that allowed us to take plastics recovered from e-waste through our recycling programs, mix it with virgin plastics, and mold this into new parts. In 2014, we launched the first computer made with closed-loop recycled-content plastics in a process certified by UL Environment.

The process led to an 11% smaller carbon footprint (even with moving the recycled plastics from the United States to China) and a natural capital net benefit of $1.3 million annually, according to a study by TruCost.

WALK

The next step was to begin scaling the project. This meant increasing inputs (we now source via both our Reconnect Partnership with Goodwill and our Asset Resale and Recovery services) and expanding the product lines in which we used closed-loop plastic (we now have shipped 11 million pounds of closed-loop plastic parts for 91 different products)—all with a cost savings of approximately $1 million.

RUN

With the success of our closed-loop project, we began looking at other ways to engage the circular economy. In addition to our longstanding use of open-sourced recycled-content plastics and sustainably sourced packaging materials like molded pulp, bamboo, and even mushrooms, we have added reclaimed carbon fiber as a circular material and are moving quickly toward the “run” phase with it. We have used nearly 1 million pounds of the material, giving it a second life and keeping it out of landfills.

We also have launched an ambitious project to use ocean-bound plastics as an input for packaging materials. By collecting this material on beaches, waterways, and other coastal areas, we are keeping it in the economy and out of the ocean (approximately 8 million tons of plastic flow into the oceans annually).

The true measure of progress with ocean-bound plastics, however, isn’t just scaling our own use (we have now committed to using 10 times more than we used this year by 2025). We recognize we will never use 8 million tons of ocean-bound plastic annually—so we are building a coalition of likeminded companies to help build out a supply chain for the material and open-source its use.

CIRCULAR IMPLICATIONS—WHAT’S NEXT

So far, we’ve been able to demonstrate with multiple materials that a circular approach can meet our customers’ expectations for performance and aesthetics, reduce our reliance on “linear” resources, and save us money.

Our experience has taught us the following:

  • A crawl-walk-run model, in which you determine feasibility, test in a pilot project, and then scale broadly, is an excellent way to begin the shift to the circular economy.
  • Use the success of a small (walk) project to build traction and keep cross-function groups interested and engaged.
  • Look for the shared value solutions—it’s called the circular “economy” for a reason and it’s not going to succeed if businesses cannot make money when they start to scale solutions.
Executive Director, Product Compliance, Environmental Affairs and Producer Responsibility, Dell Inc.