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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
PURE's goal is to help the consumer electronics industry develop a methodology for employing RFID tags to improve not only the tracking of the products but also their life-cycle management and end-of-life disposal, as well as the recycling of hazardous materials within the products, consistent with safe environmental guidelines. Independent technology consultant Elliot Maxwell initiated the PURE project and suggested that EPCglobal, through its consumer electronics working group, create a means of testing the viability of utilizing RFID tags to improve end-of-life management and the recycling of consumer electronic goods.

The EPA awarded EPCglobal a one-year grant for $55,000 to explore the application because of its potential to reduce the environmental footprint of consumer electronic products by minimizing the need for materials, thereby facilitating reuse and improving the efficiency of recycling, while also providing benefits for those involved in the life cycle of electronics. PURE has a total operating budget of $85,000, according to Elizabeth Board, executive director of the EPCglobal Public Policy Committee. EPCglobal contributed $25,000 to the effort, with the balance donated by other organizations participating in the study. The project's participants include Hewlett-Packard, Wal-Mart, UPM Raflatac, an electronics recycler and a refurbishing company.


Elliot Maxwell
According to Maxwell, the group has held two daylong meetings and a number of conference calls; its next step, he says, will be to develop an architecture for a pilot program to test the use of RFID tags in end-of-life product management. This, he explains, will entail determining which types of data must be encoded to an RFID tag attached to a consumer electronic product, whether that information must be protected—and, if so, in what manner—and how that data can be accessed and utilized to guide product refurbishers and recyclers as they deconstruct products and rebuild or recycle them.

"There's a shared interest on the part of the people in the forward supply chain in reducing the costs associated with reusing and recycling," Maxwell says. "So if their partners in the end of the supply chain can be more efficient [in recycling/reusing products], it should help manufacturers. And it could also improve sustainability for those manufacturers."

The costs of collecting and sorting used consumer electronics is high, but many U.S. states, including Minnesota and California, require manufacturers to take back and recycle the products they sell in those states (or to pay for their take-back and recycling) when consumers are ready to dispose of them. In crafting such laws, those states followed the lead of the European Union, which requires the same of manufacturers and retailers in the EU through its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

Maxwell believes one outcome of the PURE project could be to develop a means for manufacturers to employ RFID tag data to automate their reporting to state and regulatory agencies regarding how much product they collect and recycle. This could also represent a cost-saving measure for those companies.

"We want to move quickly and test our hypothesis," Maxwell says, "and create a workable model for using RFID to improve electronics recycling. The optimal end result is that we'll bring people into the conversation that have not been involved so far. My expectation is that there are lots of other interesting applications that will emerge."

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