Smartrac, Partners Aim for Green Tags

The Green Tag Program offers green certification to UHF and NFC tags sold by Smartrac that omit heavy metals, adhesives and chemical etching processes as tags are increasingly being applied to products and packaging that might be recycled.
Published: February 22, 2019

Radio frequency identification technology offers users an opportunity to reduce their ecological footprint by increasing efficiency and decreasing the incidence of lost items and over-stocking, both of which can lead to extra transportation costs. But as more tags are being attached to products and packaging, the question of what environmental impact the tags themselves have arises.

RFID technology company Smartrac Technology Group has been looking at what the ecological footprint of the ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) and Near Field Communication (NFC) passive RFID tags attached to such product might be, as well as how it might be reduced. In January 2019, the company launched a Green Tag Program that ensures the products Smartrac produces or sells have a low environmental impact.

Currently, most RFID tags include metal antennas and chips, glue to affix the chips to the antennas, and plastic or paper substrates to which those chips and antennas are attached. Therefore, when a label is applied to an otherwise recyclable product or package, it could pose a problem. Smartrac’s effort has been to establish manufacturing processes that promise to require less energy and to release RFID tags that are recyclable or compostable, thereby leaving less material behind.

With the Green Tag Program, all Smartrac tags and inlays will be subject to the firm’s new Green Tag label certification. To meet the standard, they must be plastic-free, says Hal Hikita, Smartrac’s senior VP of product management and product marketing. That means the substrate must be made of recyclable or compostable paper. The antennas must not contain heavy metals, such as copper, which is found in many traditional antennas. What’s more, no chemical etching of aluminum antennas can be applied, making the recycling of aluminum residues possible once the tag is discarded.

Any Smartrac product that qualifies as a Green Tag uses minimal adhesive for chip bonding. Additionally, printable antennas must be printed directly on cardboard that is either recyclable or compostable. In this effort, Smartrac is working with many of its technology partners to employ new manufacturing technologies that promise to require fewer resources and to enable tags to meet the Green Tag criteria.

Smartrac, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, develops and sells IoT solutions as well as RFID-based products. Its offerings include RFID inlays and tags for NFC or UHF deployments. “In today’s world,” Hikita says, “sustainability has a global mandate and is one key driver of innovation.” Unlike in previous decades, he adds, “businesses cannot avoid the significance of sustainability any longer.” But how they deliver sustainability must be competitive, he notes, which means users will expect the same level of performance, supply chain efficiency and affordability. “Our customers have made this a clear and present demand, and RFID technology is a major enabler for meeting these demands.”

For the past few years, Smartrac has undertaken research in such areas as the use of conductive ink, printing and design of RFID antennas on paper. The company is a member of Europe’s PING Consortium (short for Printed Intelligent NFC Game cards and packaging), an EU Horizon 2020 program supporting the development of commercially viable production of smart printed objects. Smartrac has already established manufacturing processes to use recyclable and compostable paper as substrate material to integrate RFID functionality.

“Greening of RFID products is an integral part of our corporate social responsibility, [which we have] actively pursued for many years,” Hikita says. The Green Tag Program, he adds, “will further leverage on [our] existing knowledge, including the latest technology innovations.” The company’s partners are now providing or working on products that utilize raw materials, including chemical-etching-free, laser-assisted antenna manufacturing.

To minimize the need for glues, companies seeking to comply with the Green Tag Program are employing alternative approaches to attaching chips to antennas and substrates. One such approach in use by Smartrac is the inclusion of specially designed chip contact bumps that provide a way to affix a chip to an antenna without conductive glue.

To further address the challenge of attaching chips to graphene printed antennas, Smartrac offers a patented loop coupling. In this case, the antenna includes a surface extension that can be coupled to a tiny loop manufactured with a much smaller consumption of raw materials compared to conventional antenna designs. “Looking ahead,” Hikita states, “we expect to share more also with respective to our progress on printed antennas and new materials.”

Smartrac expects the green tags to be competitively priced so that customers won’t need to pay more to be environmentally responsible. The firm intends to work closely not only with its market partners and suppliers, but also with customers, to identify ways in which tag products can be further ecologically optimized. The firm aims to conduct any product development in accordance with the ISO 14000 standard for environmental sustainability. The ISO 14000 family of products provides practical tools for businesses and organizations seeking to identify and control their environmental impact.

The Green Tag Program also follows the life-cycle assessment (LCA) technique to measure environmental impacts based on a product’s life, from raw materials and manufacturing to use and disposal or recycling. “We will develop, support and introduce global LCA standards according to the principles laid down in the ISO 14040/44 and related guidelines,” Hikita says. The company follows the Restriction of Hazardous Substance (RoHS) Directive, related to materials used in the making of electrical and electronic equipment, which took effect in 2006 and has been adopted by the European Parliament and Council.

In addition, Smartrac is already manufacturing its product to meet the requirements for ISO 14001 certification at the company’s own facilities in Fletcher, N.C.; Guangzhou, China; Kulim, Malaysia; and Reichshof-Wehnrath, Germany. “In the long term,” Hikita states, “we expect that an LCA for every RFID product, or at least ecological footprint, is considered as a must-have.”