Smart Trash: Examining the Impact of RFID Tags in the Recycling Industry

RFID chips


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags offer benefits for product lifecycle management and can also be helpful to indicate how best to recycle the product at the end of its life. Because they introduce metals and extraneous materials into the recycling stream, however, RFID tags themselves can also be difficult to recycle.


The European Commission funded a study to inform policy making by assessing the environmental impact of the RFID tags themselves as well as the environmental advantages that the use of RFID can provide to product lifecycle management. An integral goal is to identify the associated obstacles and needs for policy action and/or research activity.

The study, led by RAND Europe and conducted in partnership with the Department of Processing and Recycling at RWTH Aachen University and P3 Ingenieurgesellschaft, applied a number of different quantitative and qualitative methodologies, including systematic literature reviews, key informant interviews, use cases and case study analysis, and scenario development.


The nature and applications of RFID tags continue to evolve. While it is important to provide regulatory certainty to encourage beneficial developments, it is equally important not to inhibit or foreclose beneficial progress by legislating too soon, or by adopting inflexible rules tied too closely to specific technologies or use cases.

Among the more specific issues areas for policy intervention or consideration, the following are key:

  • Understanding where value is created and where it is captured in the value chain, which can in turn provide a better understanding of where investments are likely to be made and how they might be influenced by policy
  • Understanding and controlling the effects of RFID tags on waste, because the material content of RFID tags can affect the recovery of other materials
  • Developing technical requirements for RFID to become effective for end of life
  • Addressing privacy and security concerns
  • Mandating the tag-based or online accessibility of environmental information

The relations between RFID and waste are still in their infancy. There is a long way to go to build necessary awareness; assess the technical, legal and commercial feasibility of new approaches; and stimulate interest throughout the value chain.