Radio-frequency tracking tags pose recycling challenge

EPA officials concerned about potential environmental impact of increased use of radio-frequency identification devices.

As the use of tracking tags grows, some people are concerned by the potential environmental impact of the radio-frequency identification devices. Generally the concerns involve recycling the tags.

Joe Dugan, president and CEO of the RFID company RF Code, said there needs to be a U.S. recycling program for the tags, and "we want industry to be responsible." Last week, RF Code announced that all of its RFID products are now lead-free and comply with a European Union directive banning the use of certain toxic chemicals within the region.

Dugan said Congress should provide RFID usage guidelines for the United States.

There are two types of RFID tags, passive and active. Passive tags are powered externally, while active tags must carry a source of energy that enables them to operate internally. Dugan said passive tags are meant to be disposed of quickly.

Clarke McAllister started his company, ADASA, to find a solution to the possibility of RFID tags piling up as the industry grows. His company has pursued innovative methods of removal, recovery and re-use of RFID tags.

Angie Leith from the Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2005 presentation that the EPA wants to make sure RFID technology does not present any problems that could affect the current recycling and re-use infrastructure. The EPA supports working in partnership with industry and other government agencies so the tags are environmentally benign.

An intra-government U.S. RFID Council meets a couple times a year to discuss such issues, Leith said during a telephone interview.

Many industries -- including steel, aluminum, plastic, paper and glass -- are concerned that when RFID tags are attached or potentially embedded within products and not properly removed, the effects on the recycling process could be serious.

The American Iron and Steel Institute warned in an April release that RFID tags made with copper as the antenna component would be devastating for steel recycling and the steel industry in general because of the possibility of the RFID tags mixing with steel scraps. On the other hand, it said the use of aluminum would have "no discernable effect" on the recycling process.

The steel industry is calling on the government and business entities to reject the development of copper-based tags.

An expert group on RFID formed by the global trade association AIM submitted a draft standard to the International Organization for Standardization last month. It highlights the concern that although RFID is poised to help with the recycling of various products, many recycling streams are challenged by tags.

"Mandated RFID tagging by major retail and government entities creates a situation where massive amounts of RFID tags will be entering the waste stream of the container or item to which the tag is attached," according to the standard.