How RFID and Innovative Electronics Can Boost Recycling

The issues associated with climate change are complex and diverse, but using technology to improve recycling rates and decrease waste can make a difference.

In November 2021, the United Kingdom is set to host the United Nations’  COP26 Climate Change Conference, at which Sir David Attenborough, named the “People’s Advocate,” will address global leaders. Attenborough has said, “The epidemic has shown us how crucial it is to find agreement among nations if we are to solve such worldwide problems. But the environmental problems that await us within the next five to 10 years are even greater.”

There are many diverse, complex issues associated with these challenges, and there is no simple solution to them. However, there are certain areas in which we can already make a difference: improving recycling rates and reducing waste. And there is no doubt that recent technological advances will play an increasingly significant role.

Collaboration Is Key
Collaboration across organizations is essential. It is not possible for one single company to span the entire product lifecycle. For example, a brand owner may not wish to be involved in the development of recycling sorting machines but will want to design its packaging to be sortable and reusable or recyclable. The  Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastics Pact Network is a globally aligned response to waste, which enables vital knowledge sharing and coordinated action. It is a network of national and regional (multi-country) programs which connects key stakeholders to implement solutions toward a circular economy, with the following goals:

  • Eliminating unnecessary and problematic plastic packaging through redesign and innovation
  • Moving from single use to reuse
  • Ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Increasing the reuse, collection and recycling or composting of plastic packaging
  • Increasing the amount of recycled content in plastic packaging

In the U.K., the  Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) collaborates with businesses, individuals and communities on circular economy initiatives. WRAP brings together parties from across the entire plastics value chain with government and not-for-profit organizations to deliver on the  UK Plastics Pact and ensure valuable resources stay in circulation. There is a lot of work to be done to achieve the ambitious targets, especially when we read reports like the Science Advances paper that shows only  9 percent of plastic produced worldwide gets recycled.

Recycling Challenges
Recycling challenges have intensified during the  COVID-19 pandemic, with disruption to recycling services and higher levels of household waste. There are many other things that hamper recycling rates—consumer confusion is a common complaint. Most people seem keen to do the right thing but admit they don’t fully understand what can and cannot be recycled. It’s not easy when  practices vary within countries, as well as across continents.

There are also issues with traditional recycling technologies and initiatives. There has been some success with  current deposit return schemes (DRS), resulting in increased recycling rates. However, these involve considerable infrastructure investment and generally use reverse vending machines (RVMs). Traditional RVMs tend to be restricted to a limited range of containers, and they read barcodes on the labels to identify the container type. If the barcode is damaged, the system won’t work.

Novel Technology Will Help to Increase Recycling
Radio frequency identification is more reliable and can enhance existing recycling systems. It can now be leveraged with new ultra-low-cost flexible electronics to uniquely identify packaging, so that consumers see exactly what can be recycled with a simple tap of a smartphone. Having a low-cost RFID inlay (tag) embedded in a package with a unique identifier (UID), and stored in an integrated circuit (IC), enables item-level tracking and interactivity. There are several advantages to this. Firstly, RFID does not require a vision system to read it, so there is no problem if the label is illegible. Secondly, the UID can link to more detailed information, such as giving consumers localized recycling information.

This novel technology could go further and be used to incentivize consumers to recycle. For example, a next-generation smart recycling bin system (at-home and on-the-go) could complement deposit return schemes, giving consumers credits for how much is collected. It can also enable new reuse and refill models, which are key in reducing the amount of packaging. In addition, it could be used for improving the sorting process at municipal facilities to ensure more packaging is returned to its original purpose, instead of being down-cycled or landfilled.

Why Now?
So why has this technology not been available until now? Conventional silicon integrated circuits are often viewed as being too expensive for use in these kinds of high-volume fast-moving consumer goods applications. New technology innovations in ultra-low-cost flexible electronics are creating a new category of RFID product, one that is flexible and robust enough to be included in packaging at a cost point which is relevant for mass-market applications.

Collaboration across global organizations will be essential for implementing low-cost RFID solutions to address the challenges of recycling and the circular economy, and the sustainability impact of this technology is not just in enabling new circular economy initiatives. It is also about the resources (energy, water, etc.) used in the semiconductor manufacturing process. This is where the whole industry needs to work together. Only then will truly sustainable business models become a reality.

Alastair Hanlon is the chief commercial officer of  PragmatIC Semiconductor.


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