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Sudden Impact: RFID and The Environment

Putting RFID tags with copper antennas or silver ink on millions—perhaps billions—of cases in the supply chain could wreak havoc on recycling. Companies and environmental protection agencies are starting to take notice.
By Jim Morrison
Oct 01, 2005—In September 2004, two U.S. federal environmental agencies cohosted a meeting for representatives of a wide swath of the industries that consume recycled waste, including the paper, steel, aluminum, glass and plastic packaging industries. Representatives from Alien Technology, a maker of RFID tags, and EPCglobal US, the organization setting RFID standards, explained the components in tags: the copper in antennas, the silver in conductive inks and the silicon substrate the tags are formed on. They discussed whether these materials could contaminate the recycling process when tags are placed on boxes, bottles and other items.

The idea, says Dana Arnold, chief of staff for the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive, which hosted the meeting along with the Environmental Protection Agency, was to push those industries and tag manufacturers into starting research on any potential problems that might result when trillions of passive tags enter the waste stream in the coming years. Arnold's job is to make sure the federal government meets its stewardship requirements when it comes to recycling, and with the U.S. Department of Defense RFID mandate, she wanted to get a head start on any issues caused by tags.

Dealing with the effects of tags used on materials that are recycled is just one environmental task facing the RFID industry.
"In the past, we became aware of a problem with some material when it hit the recycling stream and screwed it up," Arnold says. "We're trying to prevent that happening now, give everyone a heads-up if it's an issue so we can mitigate and minimize it. I don't know if we will [be able to] or not."

Dealing with the effects of tags used on materials that are recycled is just one environmental task facing the RFID industry. The second is to determine what other environmental issues will arise when tags proliferate on individual items and on packaging. Tags with lead solder, for instance, violate packaging regulations in the European Union and 19 U.S. states.

The unanswered questions are numerous. For example, will tags with a silicon substrate, a copper antenna or silver conductive inks be compatible with the recycling of plastics? What about glass? At what concentration in the waste stream might tags cause problems during recycling? When 10 percent of items have tags? What about 80 percent?

"That's what they [tag manufacturers] have to figure out," says Victor Bell, founder of Environmental Packaging International (EPI), a Jamestown, R.I., consultancy that advises companies on complying with packaging regulations. "That's the homework they have to do. It's the $24,000 question."

Ideally, Arnold says, retailers, recycling companies, users of recycled material and other companies would form a consortium to fund research on the effects of tags in the waste stream. But that hasn't happened yet. Many RFID suppliers and industry groups say there is time to uncover and solve any environmental problems caused by tags.

"It's a little early in the game to be preparing to address environmental issues, but we have our eye on it," says Jack Grasso, director of public relations for EPCglobal US. "We're interested in helping to implement this technology responsibly, and any issues that would be a threat to that, we certainly would want to see addressed."
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