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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
May 14, 2008Most supply chain professionals involved in the RFID industry are focused on the endgame: widespread, item-level tagging of consumer goods with RFID tags that supply chain partners will be able to use to track products, and to ensure that store shelves are filled with the correct products at the proper time, in order to improve sales and consumers satisfaction.

But what impact will these billions of RFID tags have on the waste stream, and on the established recycling processes into which products and packaging are placed at the end of their life cycles? And how could RFID tags be utilized to improve current procedures for collecting and processing products when consumers are finished using them? These are questions at the forefront of two separate efforts within the RFID community.

Randy Stigal
The International Standards Organization (ISO) has recently published a set of implementation guidelines developed by the RFID Experts Group (REG), a committee hosted by auto-ID industry association AIM Global. The guidelines propose steps supply chain partners should take both to maximize the benefits of utilizing RFID tags to improve and enable product recycling, and also to examine and mitigate any potential problems the tags could pose to established packaging recycling systems. The proposed steps include conducting collaborative studies involving trade groups and end users of RFID to determine the real impact and usefulness of RFID tags in recycling systems.

In addition, EPCglobal—a nonprofit organization set up by the Uniform Code Council (now known as GS1 US) and EAN International to commercialize Electronic Product Code (EPC) RFID technology—has received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a project dubbed "Promoting Understanding of RFID and the Environment" (PURE). This project will seek a means for employing RFID in the consumer electronics industry as part of a cradle-to-cradle life-cycle approach. Such an approach centers on taking a discarded electronic product and remaking it into the same or similar product, rather than putting it in a landfill.

The ISO publication, ISO/IEC TR 24729-2, is one of three implementation guidelines the RFID Experts Group has been developing since 2006 (the others focus on RFID label placement and RFID interrogator and antenna installation best practices). Craig Harmon, chairman of the REG and president of the auto-ID consultancy QED Systems, explains that ISO produces implementation guidelines for a number of reasons—either because a measure fails to receive enough votes to be made a standard; implementation guidelines are created as a precursor to a standard; or the guidelines are developed as a means of compiling and publishing information unavailable in other areas. The latter, he says, is "what these [recycling] implementation guidelines are."

While RFID-tagging consumer products could lead to a lowering of carbon emissions through an optimized supply chain, the tagging of consumer products, particularly at the item level, would not be environmentally benign. The report calls this fact to the fore, stating: "Mandated RFID tagging by major retail and government entities creates a situation where massive amounts of RFID tags will be entering the waste stream of the container or item to which the tag is attached. This is especially true for corrugate and plastic containers, and to a lesser extent for steel and aluminum containers."

Randy Stigall, director of emerging applications for RFID tag manufacturer UPM Raflatac and a member of the REG, was the primary architect behind the implementation guidelines. "The REG has observed—and hopes—that there will be prolific and pervasive tagging in the retail supply chain, within the Department of Defense, and so on," he says, "but even back in 2005, there were also already questions about what to do with those tags. Will they create a new problem? So we engaged people who had done thinking about this."

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