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Industry Groups Study RFID at the Supply Chain's End

New ISO guidelines explore the environmental impact of RFID tags, and how to employ them to facilitate product recycling; an EPA-funded project is studying the use of RFID to aid in the recycling of consumer electronics.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Explaining the motivation behind the implementation guidelines, Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, says, "Any degree of social responsibility would suggest that we listen to concerns [regarding recycling and RFID tags], so let's reach out to industry and make certain that we know what the concerns are."

RFID tags contain small amounts of aluminum, copper, silver, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and adhesives. The report suggests ways that recyclers—as well as trade groups supporting the recycling of fiber board/corrugate, paper, plastic, glass, steel and aluminum—should work to proactively identify and mitigate the possible negative impacts of huge numbers of passive RFID tags on the waste and recycle stream, as well as identify any uses of the tags that could improve existing recycling processes.

Craig Harmon
The packaging industry, Stigall says, has already conducted tests to evaluate the impact RFID tags have on corrugate recycling. The implementation guidelines suggest other sectors of that industry perform similar studies. However, he notes that some segments of the packaging industry will need to identify an incentive to conduct such testing, adding that the corrugate industry was vested with the mission of testing the impact of RFID tags on corrugate recycling because a number of corrugate manufacturers are interested in integrating RFID tags into their products—but, he adds, "they don't want to mess up their own recycle streams."

In contrast, makers of glass packaging are not as interested in integrating RFID into their products—in fact, Stigall says, that particular industry has resisted the use of RF-based electronic article surveillance tags due to concerns that they could degrade the purity of the glass recycling stream. However, he notes, the REG hopes to work with trade groups involved in glass and plastic recycling to determine the exact impacts RFID tags would have on those recycle streams. "We are suggesting that REG work with various trade organizations in order to emerge with RFID tagging guidelines that are acceptable to all players," he says.

The ISO/IEC TR 24729-2 publication forecasts that potential negative impacts of RFID tags could be the contamination of a raw material being recycled, as well as the cost of filtering the tags to keep the recycle stream tag-free. The report points to the use of RFID in waste sortation to facilitate recycling as one positive use of RFID tags at the conclusion of a product's or packaging's life.

"We started talking about the effects of RFID in the waste stream, and it quickly became evident that we were only talking about the downside," Harmon says. "But there is also a positive spin to RF tags and recycling, and that is that the tags can aid in recycling. This has been one of the cornerstones of product life-cycle management. It's also one of the reasons we are concerned about the passage of any legislation that might require an RFID tag to be killed at the point of purchase, because this would negate the tag's usefulness in life-cycle management."

Additionally, the implementation guidelines call for using a segment of an RFID tag's user memory to carry a code that would direct waste collection agencies regarding how a tagged product should be recycled. The use of tag data to direct life-cycle management is also a major thrust of the EPCglobal EPA research grant for the PURE project.

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