In the absence of U.S. regulations, those groups are banking on competitive pressure to make companies improve their e-waste practices.
"This is a very significant announcement," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Takeback Coalition, which has long pressured Dell and other electronics makers to improve their recycling programs. "It may seem like nuance, but what Dell's doing is drawing a very sharp and clear line and saying they won't cross it, in a way that is just much brighter and clearer than the way anyone else does it."
Dell, based in Round Rock, Texas, is the world's No. 2 maker of personal computers, behind Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Basel Action Network have tracked shipments of e-waste intended for recycling to countries such as China, Ghana and Nigeria and found computers, TVs and other electronics being dismantled by smashing or burning, exposing people to mercury, lead and other toxic chemicals.
No one knows exactly how much of the electronics turned over to recyclers ends up in such conditions, but Greenpeace and others say it could be 50 percent to 80 percent of the items collected in the U.S. for recycling.
That's despite broad acceptance of the Basel Convention, an international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste across borders. The U.S., which has no federal law against sending such e-waste to scrap dealers overseas, has yet to ratify the Basel Convention.
Dell said it had already required contractors to keep e-waste out of developing countries. But until now, the company had not published as clear a policy for the handling of electronics collected by its consumer and business recycling programs -- 290 million pounds in the five or so years since Dell started counting.
In its revised policy, Dell defined e-waste as any non-working parts or devices, and the company said none of that material can be exported from developed countries to developing ones. The Basel Convention's definition, by comparison, is based more on whether materials contain toxic substances.
The PC maker contracts directly with about 25 recycling companies around the world; those companies, in turn, send out parts or shredded materials to a much wider network of subcontractors. To ensure compliance, Dell said it has already been auditing every one of those companies and tracks the electronics from the point of collection to its very last stop.
Dell's Mark Newton, a senior manager for environmental sustainability, said the PC maker chooses to work only with recyclers that abide by its standards in order to protect its reputation.
"We have suppliers lining up to work with us. There are plenty of reputable suppliers," Newton said. "It's just a matter of time before companies operating on the margins lose the business of companies that are serious about doing this the right way."
Dell's policy does have exceptions. Raw materials that can go right back into manufacturing, like plastics that don't contain any harmful chemicals, or unleaded glass, can be sent to developing countries. There's also an exception for non-working parts or devices that need to be sent back to manufacturers in developing countries because of warranty agreements.