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RFID's Greener Side

Tracking tagged goods—and recycling their packaging—will reduce our energy needs.
By Kevin Ashton
Jan 28, 2008—There was a minor and unmarked passing in the world of RFID last year. The blogger known only as "Green RFID Guy" announced that he had "essentially abandoned" his site about the environmental benefits of radio frequency identification. "What happened?" he asked. "Life, I guess. Sad but true."

But there's good news—he didn't stop blogging because there was no story to tell. RFID is, and always has been, a technology with great potential in the battle against global warming and—if you choose not to believe that—the war on waste and damage to the landscape.

Most environmentalists focus on energy production and consumption, with good reason. Producing and consuming energy typically creates carbon, and carbon is the biggest driver of climate change. RFID has little to do with energy (although forward-thinking oil companies such as BP are among the pioneers of RFID-based sensor networks), so its role as an environmentally friendly "clean technology" is often overlooked.

But RFID can have a huge impact on the things we use energy for—things such as the manufacture and transport of goods. Here's one example from Cornell University ecologist David Pimental: Growing, picking, processing and transporting a pound of lettuce from a farm in California to a store in New York burns about 4,800 calories of carbon-emitting fossil fuel. If the lettuce is just ordered as "safety stock"—the supply-chain professional's polite term for "stuff we probably won't need, but better have just in case"—chances are it doesn't get sold and is thrown away. So the lettuce represents thousands of calories of wasted energy. RFID improves supply-chain visibility, reduces overstocks and eliminates most of the need for safety stock. This increased efficiency in manufacturing and transportation eliminates a good chunk of energy consumption.

Here's another scenario: The lettuce is needed, but it is rejected by the store because it has spoiled en route. In that case, the energy hit is more painful. The truck is turned around and typically goes back to where it came from and another truck is dispatched in its place, multiplying the energy consumption. RFID-enabled sensor networks can prevent this by tracking the freshness of the product in transit and making sure it gets to its destination before it spoils.

And that's not all RFID has to offer. Once products are consumed, the packaging is thrown away. Recycling this waste is a hit-or-miss business. For example, it is both difficult and expensive to manually sort different kinds of plastic, so lots of it is either never recycled or recycled into a low-grade cocktail of mixed-up stuff that isn't terribly useful. The same RFID tag that can reduce excess inventory can also identify what every package is made of, enabling the automated sorting of garbage. Once sorted, the waste material can be turned into raw material. And because plastics are made from oil, more recycling means saving energy—and maybe the planet in the process.

It may be the end for Green RFID Guy, but it's just the beginning for green RFID.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.
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