RFID tags are small objects attached to or built into products or other hosts that require identification, through a system of remote readers and data processors, similar to the bar-code system in use. While the largest application is the tracking of manufactured goods, they are also used for pet identification, medical prescriptions for the visually-impaired, bookstore / library book tracking, building access control, credit cards, badges, and in the future, for patient identification, intelligent traffic management, and are even envisioned for human implantation.
Miniscule, but voluminous
Small they may be; but in numbers that could well reach thousands of millions, post-use RFID tags are potential environmentally hazardous waste since they contain silicon, adhesives, nickel, the antennae are made from copper, aluminum, or silver, which are contaminants for recyclers and manufacturers who use recycled material. This article gauges the commerce-ethics balance while examining the current scenario vis-à-vis tag use and disposal issues.
Extended producer responsibility
The pace of RFID implementation has received such a boost from its use by a well-known retailer that it is soon becoming the mantra for supply chain and inventory managers. Hectic activity is underway to realise the potential of RFID item tracking: that of efficient inventory control and, ultimately, cost benefits. While evolution of technical standards naturally ensued, ethical / environmental standards are taking much slower to evolve.
Why? It is true that companies have of late started to make products that are less harmful to the environment, or use less energy in their manufacture, or implement recycling policies sincerely. However we are yet to reach a stage where manufacturing conglomerates think well beyond profits when implementing eco-conscious policies and changes to their assembly line and end products. As with any other such issue, environmentalists have to cry hoarse before the powers that be hear them. The RFID tags, at the end of their useful lives, present a two-pointed challenge.
Firstly, there is the direct impact of their presence in otherwise recyclable material (the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, in June this year, has opined that "the current situation is a result of the failure of the RFID tag manufacturers to interact with the recycling industry during the development of their product and their subsequent marketing activities").
Secondly, their impact when they reach trash bins directly - in this case, the disposal-reuse-recycle issues can be seen as part of the larger e-waste scenario that has Governments worried and acting on remedial measures. Electronic waste disposal laws, legislation & policy, elements of model e-waste legislation and other better late than never actions are underfoot. For example, the Computer Takeback Campaign has released "Environmentally Preferable Procurement Guidelines for Electronic Products".