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The world has a plastics shortage, and PC makers may be responding with a little greenwashing

Manufacturers’ marketing reflects good intentions and the realities of challenged supply chains and tightening laws

The world has a shortage of plastics, and the ensuing challenges — rather than a desire to protect the planet — may well be the reason you’ve recently heard about recycled plastic working its way into laptops and other gadgetry.

The Reg’s interest in recycled materials was piqued by a series of announcements that emerged around April 2021’s Earth Day. Acer, for example, touted the first of a new range of greener products that featured post-consumer recycled plastic. Lenovo reminded us that it uses millions of kilograms of recycled plastic each year.

Dell has a 2030 goal of reusing or recycling an equivalent product for every product a customer buys, while using 100 per cent recycled or renewable packaging materials and having more than half of product content made from recycled or renewable materials.

That news got us wondering if recycled material makes a difference that readers might notice in a product. We also wondered if the burst of enthusiasm for recycled materials was mere virtue signaling, or a signal of real change.

A former Dell design engineer, who has moved on to pastures new in a related field, shared the following observation:

I think it started out as trendy but a lot of companies are struggling with unexpected material bottlenecks. I’ve heard that plastics are getting difficult to get and I’m sure that sheet metal isn’t far behind.

Analyst firm Gartner appears to have confirmed that idea. The firm recently surveyed supply-chain pros and found 51 per cent expect that the focus on their circular economy strategies will increase from 2020 until 2022.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the strengths of globalised supply chains can become a weakness when raw material availability and access plummet during a crisis,” said Senior Director Analyst Sarah Watt.

KPMG’s partner and Head of Supply Chain, Rakesh Agarwal, told us he’s seeing plastics shortages of sufficient severity that they’re disrupting production. He told The Register:

Plastics are used across the semiconductor industry extensively in circuit boards, hard disk drives, integrated circuits, etc. A shortage of plastic and a slowdown in its production are huge factors causing material shortages or supply chain disruption in electronics manufacturing.

He cited other factors — such as COVID-19, weather disruptions, and the Suez Canal container ship blockage — as having all contributed to the shortages, adding:

Major producers such as those in the US announced force majeures following the winter storm, causing facilities that can produce approximately seven million tonnes a year of polypropylene (PP) production to be shut for around two weeks.

Agarwal added that another reason manufacturers are using recycled materials could be to reach sustainability goals, and not just to survive the ups and downs of supply chains.

“Increased awareness and focus on sustainability globally are encouraging computer manufacturers to use more recycled parts in the manufacturing process," he said.

Environmental regulations are also changing behaviour. He said:

Governments around the world have developed national e-waste policies in their journey to deliver on sustainability goals. Over 78 countries have a policy, legislation, or regulation governing e-waste in place, covering 71 per cent of the world’s population.

With legislation, supply chain problems and public perception pushing recycled materials, Gartner seems right — we’re likely to see this "trend" continue.

One more thing: we asked if recycled plastics might change the experience of using a product. We were unable to find evidence that recycled materials make a noticeable difference to performance. ®

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