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The Green Technology

RFID can help businesses operate more efficiently while protecting the environment.
By John Edwards
Apr 01, 2008—Radio frequency identification technology, originally designed for product tracking, now promises to help people live and work in a cleaner and healthier environment. An array of test projects and field deployments are beginning to show that RFID can benefit business operations—by creating efficiencies, improving quality control and strengthening security—while simultaneously helping the environment—by cutting materials waste, reducing vehicle exhaust and boosting recycling. Other projects are using the technology in a green way, such as harnessing solar power to operate RFID systems.

RFID's potential to help both the environment and the bottom line seems almost limitless. Some RFID applications include the tagging and tracking of endangered species to determine how environmental changes are affecting their habitats. Others involve the remote monitoring of pest infestations to limit the use of environmentally harmful chemicals to defined hot spots.

Indisputable Key's RFID tracking system records the critical log specifications—including height, diameter, origin and cutting date—that tend to exert the greatest influence on wood quality.

RFID pioneer Wal-Mart believes the technology can improve the environmental health of the world as well as the financial health of the company and its suppliers. "What's good for the planet is good for business," said Wal-Mart CIO Rollin Ford at last year's RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition. "Using RFID to locate errors, get to root causes and achieve accurate forecasts leads to efficiency, which leads to sustainability."

The giant retailer remains committed to RFID's green potential. Wal-Mart spokesperson John Simley explains how the technology can, for example, lower both the financial and the environmental costs of wasted produce: "The energy that's invested in a perishable item includes growing, harvesting, preparing, packaging, shipping, refrigerating, holding and displaying it. If it doesn't arrive on time, or if it perishes on the way to the store, it becomes a complete waste—not just of the product, but of all the energy invested along the way."

Jean-Pierre Emond, codirector of the University of Florida Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, expresses the same point of view, noting that "a significant amount of energy, for example, is spent every year to keep perishable products at the correct temperature during distribution." RFID-driven temperature and humidity monitors mounted in trailers and warehouses can help keep food fresher longer. "RFID can significantly contribute to this effort," Emond says.

ZigBee, a related radio technology, is being used to monitor and control energy consumption. Toronto-based Riga Development, for example, has created a ZigBee-powered network that can help the managers of hotels and other large buildings slash energy costs by up to 40 percent. The WiSuite system automatically self-configures into a wireless mesh network of "WiStat" digital thermostats, appliances and receivers installed throughout a building. The WiStats and related appliance controls monitor the rooms' environments, providing a comfortable experience for occupants while reducing energy use in unoccupied rooms and alerting staff to potential problems.

"We're just at the beginning," says Ann Grackin, managing director of global risk intelligence supply-chain consulting at Marsh, an international insurance broker and strategic risk adviser headquartered in Boston. "Such projects will provide ROI incentive and get businesses to cross the green divide."
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