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Can RFID Save the Planet?

A new World Wildlife Fund report suggests that RFID and microsensors could help reduce waste and improve recycling.
Aug 23, 2002August 23, 2002 -- Leading conservationists will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, from Sept. 2 to 11 for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. In advance of that event, the World Wildlife Fund has published a 200-page report that shows how information and communication technology (ICT) could play a positive role in achieving sustainable development.

The report, Sustainability at the Speed of Light, defines ICT as any product or system that communicates, stores, and processes information. The WWF says ICT has "the potential to rapidly change the whole structure of society and reshape the way we organize our economy, in much the same manner as did inventions of the last century, such as the internal combustion engine."

One simple example of the potential impact of ICT is the concept of the "intelligent house," in which most components, such as the heating system and refrigerator, can communicate with each other and with the outside world. The potential exists to optimize energy use by having the heating system respond to weather forecast and by having electrical appliances communicate with the power utility to lower energy demand when energy prices are high. The report envisions digital newspapers reducing paper consumption and thus deforestation. Telecommuting could reduce travel by car, and video conferencing might one day cut air travel.

The report doesn't go into depth about radio frequency identification and microsensors, but it does hint at the important role that they could play in creating a sustainable future. For instance, it suggests that wireless microsensors could soon allow us to gather much better data in hostile or difficult-to-reach environments, such as rain forest canopies, oil spills, and forest fires.

And when every product is uniquely identified, shoppers could get more information and make more informed choices about products produced in an eco-friendly way. Refrigerators might even recommend a menu based on seasonal organic food grown locally in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and pesticide use.

The report envisions RFID enabling companies to better match supply to demand so that there is less wasted production and more efficient use of resources. And of course, the potential impact on recycling is huge.

"Environmental protection can move from managing industries to managing every object, which includes knowing the properties and whereabouts of these objects," the report states. "Customers could benefit from such a system since they could quickly recognize and sort desired items (using the Internet or hand-held devices) according to criteria such as recycled content, recyclability, energy efficiency, toxics, etc."

The report consists of nine papers from leading experts. It concludes that the biggest danger on a global level is if ICT is only used to make the existing economy more efficient, with influential groups trying to exploit it to reap short-term benefits. The study calls for the development of strong policies to prevent the creation of incentives that could worsen the current negative ecological, social, and economic trends.

"ICT will play a crucial role in tomorrow's society," says Dennis Pamlin, policy advisor at WWF Sweden, and editor of the report. "It will give us totally new opportunities to both preserve the best elements of our societies, and develop new and better solutions. But it also faces important challenges, such as bringing together all parts of the world to reach a situation in which everyone can meet their basic needs."
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