Living in a Sustainable Material World

March 28, 2019

Let’s face it, everything around us — food, clothing, homes, cars, toys, etc. — is made from matter.

From molecules to quarks, we live in a material world with a majority of items originating from some renewable or non-renewable natural resource.

Recognizing this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) program — its version of a Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) approach to business.

Climate change, energy policy, and the economy often take center stage in the news, but according to the Agency, all these issues are, in part, symptoms of how we use materials.

Since the late 1980s, our human footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity. The Earth’s regenerative ability can no longer keep pace with human demand — people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources. The result: we are running out of materials.

According to the EPA, to remain competitive and viable, materials management is essential.

Its SMM program has three goals:

  • Use materials in the most productive way with an emphasis on using less.
  • Reduce toxic chemicals and environmental impacts throughout the material life cycle.
  • Assure we have sufficient resources to meet today’s needs and those of the future.

Although there are not specific EPA steps or guidelines for companies when conducting a life-cycle assessment, the EPA does lay out a Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) analytical framework in its Sustainable Materials Management program: The Road Ahead report and accompanying appendix.

A key element of the EPA’s SMM program is public recognition. EPA hosts multiple “challenges” for companies that want to revamp their products’ material use.

Not only is there a chance for awards, but challenge participants can access EPA’s technical assistance and resources to help them plan, implement and track their initiatives.

For example, EPA offers toolkits and guidance for those working to reduce food loss and waste and repurpose materials related to the build environment.

Taking Home the Gold

In 2018, the EPA gave SMM awards to companies in six categories: Waste, Electronics, Purchasing, Energy, Water and Transportation. The awards were based on the greatest percentage of change over the previous fiscal year.

Dell Inc. received the EPA’s 2018 Electronics Product Category award for its Closed Loop Gold Recycling Program.

The company developed a system to reclaim gold from the motherboards of used electronics.

This reduces the demand for mining of gold ore, which in turn decreases the environmental impact of mining.

Dell partnered with Goodwill to collect used electronics. The devices traveled to Wistron GreenTech, a recycling division of Taiwan-based Wistron Corp, where the gold was recovered and refined using a hydrometallurgical process.

Recovered gold is reused in motherboards for future products i.e. laptops and tablets.

By investing in the use of recycled gold content in its notebooks, Dell was able to reduce the cost of gold from several dollars per product to a few cents per product.

In addition, it significantly cut the environmental impact by using recycled content instead of requiring the energy-intensive mining practices for virgin gold ore.

According to Dell, there is 800 times more gold in a ton of motherboards than in a ton of ore from the earth.

Dell touts that a Trucost study shows the Dell gold reclamation process, created by Dell partner Wistron GreenTech, has a 99% lower environmental impact than traditional mined gold.

Dell’s goal is to use a total of 100 million pounds of recycled content in its products by 2020. The gold recycling plays a major role in that plan.

To raise awareness of the value of used electronics and the precious metals they contain, Dell is breaking in to the jewelry business. A jewelry designer will use DELL-recycled gold in its newest collection.

A perfect offering for a sustainable material world!


Laurie Toupin