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RFID for re-use and recycling – lessons from previous projects

While single-use items play a key role in the consumer culture, there is growing pressure to reuse or recyle – and not just for environmental reasons, but also due to the rising cost of materials and disposal.

RFID can play an important part in such schemes by automating the process of separating and sorting containers – whether that is items being returned under a customer deposit scheme or rubbish arriving at a waste site. Where items incorporate electronic tags, they can be automatically identified by readers at collection points and sent on for processing.

However as with any RFID project, it is important to choose the right components for the environment they will operate in and run trials to ensure the system runs smoothly.

Friction-free recycling

One success story is the coffee cup reuse scheme developed by Delete Cups. Unlike previous customer deposit schemes, where customers have to register their details and apply for their money back or queue instore, Delete Cups’ system is friction free.

Each cup contains an RFID chip. The barista simply scans the cup when taking the customer’s payment and the software links this with the transaction at the till. Once the used cup is deposited at the collection point, the chip is detected and the payment is automatically refunded.

Delete Cups co-founder Alasdair Hood says the team set out to make the system as easy to use as possible. “We did carry out trials using QR codes but they had to be read by a camera positioned in the café. However it was easy for the camera to be nudged out of range, steam or other obstacles would obscure the line of sight and the machines would often need servicing. There were too many failure points.

“With RFID, even if cafes don’t have space for a collection bin and customers have to hand cups in at the counter, they can be easily checked in by a barista using a hand scanner, or by a scanner on top of the dishwasher as the cups are being loaded into the machine. Alternatively a bag of cups can be scanned at once.”

Richard Harrison of CoreRFID believes design is the key to the success of any system, as Delete Cups has shown. “The most effective projects are those where RFID is considered at the outset. In this case, the cups were designed with this in mind and the team carried out extensive trials to test the system under different conditions.”

A lesson from Sweden

However not all pilot projects are successful. In one case, CoreRFID was invited by a Swedish company to carry out trials on bails of waste material arriving at a waste to energy plant. The early trials, where the bails were prepared specifically for the tests, were very encouraging.

However, in the second round of the project the bails of material used the existing packaging, and the shape was distorted in the course of transportation. In many cases the tags were completely obscured from the scanners, so the results proved unreliable.

Richard Harrison adds: “Whilst RFID does not necessarily require line of sight, it does require the antenna to be able to be pick up the signal from the tag. In this case the tags were sometimes obscured by plastic and other waste material.

“More time spent designing the packaging correctly, with RFID in mind, would have prevented this situation from happening and the technology would have worked satisfactorily.

“The lesson is that it if schemes are to be most effective, it is worth considering RFID at the beginning and certainly in the product or the packaging design.”

Find out more about our RFID consultancy service and how pilot projects can help you test your ideas before committing to a new system.