Reducing waste using electronic tagging

Written by: Gillian Ewers | Published:
The benefits of NFC could be used to increase recycling and reduce waste

Over the past few months, we have seen a number of retailers and brands such as Malibu running (Near Field Communication (NFC) enabled smart packaging campaigns to boost consumer engagement.

NFC means two electronic devices can be connected, for example using a debit card or phone for a contactless payment. However, the benefits of NFC go well beyond this, as the technology could also be used to increase recycling and reduce waste.

The World Bank estimated that in 2012, on average globally, each person generated 1.2kg of waste per day. As the population grows, so does the seriousness of the problem. Consider the one billion plastic bottles purchased around the world every minute, of which less than 50% are collected for recycling and only 7% are turned into new bottles.

If we could increase recycling to 97%, there is the potential to save around 18 million tonnes of CO2e. Although there has been an increasing focus on recycling, there is still a long way to go. Significant changes are needed if we are to improve recycling and reach the EU’s challenging goals to reduce landfill to a maximum of 10% of municipal waste by 2030.

NFC offers a real opportunity to increase recycling and reduce waste. A low-cost inlay, with a unique ID, could be added to product packaging, allowing consumers to access clear and localised recycling information with a simple tap of an NFC-enabled smartphone. This would make it much easier to understand what and where to recycle.

It could also be used to incentivise consumers. For example, a smart recycling bin could count the number of items that are placed into it and give the consumer credits for how much is collected. Therefore, promoting positive behaviour rather than the negative ‘Pay to Throw’ schemes proposing to charge for the amount of unsegregated waste.

Endless possibilities

Another challenge is black plastic food trays. These trays are commonly used for ready meals, their dark colouring is to hide the wet food, but they (and other opaque plastic vessels) are difficult to be separated using the near infra read (NIR) sorting technique which is employed in municipal waste recycling centres.

If NFC smart packaging was used to identify this valuable source of plastic, one million tonnes of plastic could be saved from landfill per year in the UK alone.

There are other ways that RFID/NFC can be used to reduce more than just packaging waste. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that approximately 4% of meat and 9% of fish is lost in the distribution, supermarket and retail part of the supply chain in the developed world.

Avery Dennison has been running trials and have reported that they have seen up to a 20% reduction in food waste using RFID. If this improvement could be achieved across meat, fish and dairy in just Europe and North America, it could save 60 kilo tonnes of plastic (as this food is generally wrapped in plastic) and 3 million tonnes of food per year.

These are exciting prospects, but will it really happen and how much will it cost? With advances in electronics and the development of low-cost flexible integrated circuits (PragmatIC FlexICs), which are the brains behind NFC inlays, it is now economically viable to incorporate intelligence into everyday objects. We just need to leverage this NFC smart packaging technology and win the war on waste.

Gillian Ewers is vice president of marketing at tech firm PragmatIC which was one of five companies awarded a share of £400,000 from a government fund to develop digital processes of tracking waste.

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