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Put RFID in the Trash

Twenty years from now, your garbage can will be full of tags.
By Kevin Ashton
Dec 01, 2009—Ever seen the TV show Mad Men? It's set in the 1960s, and part of its appeal stems from portraying the past without nostalgia, as it really was. Pregnant women smoke and drink. Nobody wears seat belts. Families picnic and leave their litter to blow in the wind. While these scenes are shocking, they also beg the question: How will our lives shock future generations?

My money's on our approach to trash. Today, we consume and discard as if the world has infinite resources and we're the only ones who need them. Yes, we recycle more packaging, old electronics and cars than we used to, but what really happens after it gets hauled away? Some items do get recycled, but much of our trash still ends up in landfills and scrap heaps.

In 2030, things will be different for one simple reason: Consumerism can't scale. There isn't enough stuff for everybody on the planet to live wastefully, and even if there were, there wouldn't be enough space for all the waste. Twenty years from now, the world's population will have grown by about one and a half billion, and a larger proportion of that population will be enjoying middle-class lives. It will be too expensive to manufacture everything we need from new raw materials, ship the finished products across oceans, and cart it off to be dumped in a landfill after a few days or years of use. Something has to give—and that something will be how we throw things away.

The solution is to reclaim everything that could possibly have any value, then reprocess it and make it useful again. It's virtually impossible—and certainly not cost-effective—to sort trash manually, or to build machines that recognize what an object is made of simply by "looking" at it. RFID is the technology that will enable automatic sorting. Sooner or later, everything will get an RFID tag, which will broadcast identification information to sorting machines and separators so all trash can be reprocessed properly.

This isn't as farfetched as it may seem.

Robots that use RFID to identify things already exist in university and industry research labs around the world. RFID is being used for recycling, too. RecycleBank, which operates in many U.S. cities and towns, uses RFID to automatically identify who is recycling, and how much, and then reward them accordingly.

If tagging trash sounds complicated, that's because it is. But no more so than the robotic production of automobiles and other mass consumer goods, or the advanced refining of oil, or the manufacturing of silicon chips, or dozens of other processes that have become commonplace since the days of Mad Men. Need and money drove the development of all those processes. By 2030, there will be a tremendous need to reprocess trash efficiently, and a great deal of wealth to be created by doing it. RFID will be the enabling technology that makes it all possible.

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