U.K. NFC Pilot Focuses on Recycling

By Claire Swedberg

PragmatIC's flexible IC is being built into the packaging of food and beverages, then is being read at multiple points, such as on store shelves and when the packaging is returned, to manage both reusable and recyclable containers.

Several U.K. retailers are launching pilots of a sustainability and waste-management solution to track recyclables and reusable product packaging in order to increase the rate at which consumers return packaging. The goal for retailers is to reduce waste while meeting federal recycling mandates that may be legislated during the coming years.

The technology that will be used for the trials, including flexible 13.56 MHz Near Field Communication (NFC) ICs, reader antennas and software, is being provided by semiconductor company  PragmatIC. The pilots are part of the company's Sustainable Plastics Recycling Innovation by Tagging Electronically (SPRITE) program, which was announced this past spring, and are expected to extend into spring of 2022.

PragmatIC's flexible IC

PragmatIC makes flexible electronics that include NFC chips compliant with ISO 14443, without the use of silicon. These chips, called FlexIC, are designed to be thin and bendable, the company reports, to enable the application of a single antenna layer, and they can be attached to paper or plastic inlays. The FlexIC is designed to be lower in cost than standard NFC chips, and the company says inlay and packaging firms can more easily apply the chip during the production process than they can with standard silicon chips.

The technology is intended to make the deployment of large numbers of NFC tags affordable and sustainable, says Joshua Young, PragmatIC's circular economy manager. The manufacturing process, he explains, is more sustainable since the FlexIC requires 100 times less water during the production process then standard silicone-based NFC chips do. To expand the use of its NFC chips for sustainability efforts, PragmatIC has multiple projects underway that are aimed at identifying everyday items in recycling, waste management and the circular economy. The projects are focused on reducing food waste, managing the supply chain, and enabling more automatic recycling and targeted waste management.

SPRITE is specifically intended to encourage the return of packaging on food and beverages. Currently, European consumers may take part in deposit-return schemes, though many might not take the additional step of returning emptied containers to the same store where the products were purchased. To combat the inconvenience of returnables, the SPRITE program provides greater incentive for shoppers to return the packaging, while offering stores and brands greater visibility into their products and resulting packaging in the supply chain and the waste stream.

Joshua Young

PragmatIC's long-term goal is to make recycling convenient and cost-effective for consumers by building NFC technology into standard bins, and by incorporating tags into everyday product packaging. The company expects three or four retailers to begin tracking goods throughout the recycling process with a few key products. Each pilot starts with a PragmatIC flexible NFC chip incorporated into bottle caps, labels or packages at the point of manufacture. The chips are also being built into or applied to reusable produce packaging.

PragmatIC is providing the stores with smart bins that come with their own NFC reader antennas for the purpose of automatic identification. The bins are being deployed at restaurants and cafés. Each NFC chip is encoded with a unique ID number that is linked to a particular product, such as a beverage or containerized food. For the SPRITE program, PragmatIC is providing cloud-based software that stores each product's ID and other related data. While the software is being supplied for demonstration purposes, the firm is working with software partners on future deployments.

The NFC chips are scanned at the point of application to create their identity in the software, and the goods are then shipped to retailer locations. Typically, Young explains, the tags will next be read on store shelves, using any NFC-enabled smartphone or a dedicated handheld NFC reader. The collected information, he says, enables the retailer to know which goods have been received and are on shelves ready for sale.

When consumers purchase tagged products, they can read the tag IDs as well. PragmatIC provides an app as part of the SPRITE program for users to download, after which they can scan tags at the time of purchase. In this way, buyers can create a link to their recycling deposits at the time of purchase, for each specific product ID. When they return, they can simply proceed to a smart bin at the participating store and drop the packaging into it. The antenna built into the bin will read the tag IDs and the software will identify whose container it is and thus refund them the deposit amount.

In addition, the technology is being tested for use with reusable packaging. Asparagus or other products would be packed on a tray that could be washed and reused once a customer returned it. Each tag ID would be read when the packaging was returned, and the tags could be interrogated during the washing and refilling processes. The data would enable retailers to know how many times the packaging had been used and when it must be replaced. The retailer would have a record of how well the reusable system was working, as well as which items were or were not being returned.

Many of the pilot details have yet to be determined, Young says, such as what data will be collected, where this will take place and how many readers will be deployed. "What is clear," he states, "is that there will be points of return in place, and those schemes need to scale." Ultimately, Young notes, the company hopes to see smart bins in large volume in order to make the returning of recyclable packaging convenient for consumers. Participating retailers have asked to remain unnamed, though Young cites the example of stores tracking drinking bottles and product packaging.

"We foresee three or four trials by the end of this year," Young states, "with more going live early next year." Following the pilot, the company hopes to work with technology partners that will implement the solution for other brands and stores in the United Kingdom and worldwide. "We're confident we can demonstrate a state-of-the-art recycling scheme leveraging the technology to make it as easy as possible for consumers to recycle and increase recovery rates. This is a pathway to enable deposit-return schemes to be successful in the future."

The company has other projects underway as well, such as SORT-IT and  SecQuAL. SORT-IT entails NFC tags being applied to waste for sorting processes at a materials recovery facility (MRF). The pilot is designed to enable packaging manufacturers to more effectively separate plastics, which could otherwise be lost to landfill. It hopes the system will enable MRFs to apply grades to their plastic output and appropriately price recycled plastic as it is sorted into different bundles.

SecQuAL, an acronym for Secure Quality Assured Logistics for Digital Food Ecosystems, is a consortium working with PragmatIC and U.K. researchers to track food in the supply chain. The goal is to reduce the risk of food expiring or spoiling before it reaches store shelves, thereby reducing the volume of food waste. PragmatIC will integrate a sensor with NFC to enable retailers and consumers to measure the freshness of food and thereby reduce waste.