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RFID and Environmental Sustainability: An Unlikely Partnership

A study by a team of academic researchers shows that rather than being a potential problem for recycling, RFID usage can improve environmental sustainability, by providing more accurate and timely information to an organization's green supply chain management practices.
By Victor Sower, Jeremy Bellah, Pamela Zelbst and Kenneth Green
Sep 22, 2013

A research team at Sam Houston State University's Center for Innovation and Technology and Southern Arkansas University recently completed a study that found the use of radio frequency identification technology can improve environmental sustainability, by providing more accurate and timely information to an organization's green supply chain management practices.

RFID is a technology most often associated with improving manufacturers' ability to manage assets, inventory and the supply chain. In these areas, RFID has helped manufacturers reduce cycle times, decrease safety-stock levels and improve changeover times (Zebra, 2011). But the technology's ability to provide near-real-time information also has promise for aiding in environmental sustainability practices. Among the reported benefits in this area are an increased ability to account for, repair and reuse shipping containers returned through the supply chain, as well as an improvement in tracking forest products throughout their life cycle.

Left to right: Victor Sower, Jeremy Bellah, Pamela Zelbst and Kenneth Green
The Impact of RFID Tags on Recycling
Some contend that RFID is actually an impediment to environmental sustainability, since RFID tags can be a source of contamination that increases recycling costs. A RAND study (Schindler et al., 2012) has found that it "is not feasible to selectively extract RFID tags" attached to recyclable materials from waste streams during the recycling process. "The impact that is created by an RFID tag depends on whether the waste stream is already heterogeneous or the single object it is attached to is already complex… [and also] on the type of treatment process required." For example, since most waste streams contain multiple sources of impurities, and the treatment processes are designed to cope with these impurities, "the materials in waste streams may also be those that would be found within the RFID tags. So, passive RFID tags do not necessarily lead to the input of different materials than other applications."

The Schindler study found that "the impacts of RFID tags on secondary raw material provisioning processes, including metal, glass, paper, plastic and beverage carton recycling, are varied. The metal recyclates and alloying elements expected from RFID tags are copper, silver, nickel and silicon. Of these only copper is considered to be problematic and particularly so in the recycling of non-ferrous metals through the aluminum recycling route. However, the copper recycling route of non-ferrous metals is not only considered to be unaffected by the presence of RFID tags, but also poses the most promising way of recovering both the energy content as well as most metals (especially the precious metals) contained in RFID tags."

That study also suggested that the waste created by RFID tags presents problems during the recycling process. However, this conclusion is based on a few faulty assumptions. The first is that RFID tags contain a large volume of material that cannot be recycled. According to Chris Diorio, Impinj's chief technology officer and co-founder, the fact that it is not feasible to extract tags from recyclable material makes little difference to the waste stream. This is due to the volume of integrated circuits (ICs) present in the waste stream. "…62.5 billion ICs will fit into a cubic meter of waste. The 2013 RFID IC volume will be only 3 billion, which is 0.05 cubic meters of waste. The 2025 IC volume will be 100 billion, but the ICs will be even smaller. So in 2025 RFID ICs will contribute roughly a cubic meter of waste to the worldwide waste stream per year. This amount of waste is inconsequential" (Diorio, 2013). The second faulty assumption relates to the use of copper in RFID inlays. According to Diorio, "Very few inlays use copper today, and the cost of copper means that none will be using copper a few years from now."

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