Can technology be used to better track flows of end-of-life electronics? Industry and government officials discussed that idea this week during a webinar produced by consulting firm TransparentPlanet LLC and the U.S. EPA.

Experts offerered presentions on the ways radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and other tools can be employed to help sort and track e-scrap. With an audience of about 120 listening, they also discussed current challenges with downstream tracking of material.

“Much like you could walk up and down the aisles of a warehouse and do an inventory or find out where things are, in general you should be able to do that with an RFID tag in a recycling center as the items come through,” said Chuck Evanhoe, chairman of the Association for Automatic Identification & Mobility (AIM). “As the item is identified, you’d be able to get the information off that tag and get it routed to the correct recycle stream if you’d implemented the process correctly.”

For example, an RFID tag could inform staff that a decades-old printed circuit board needs special handling because it uses lead solder, Evanhoe said.

RFID tags are one example in a family of technologies called automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). Barcodes are perhaps the most well-known AIDC tool. AIM, a trade group, represents and promotes the interests of the AIDC industry.

RFID and recycling

Pennsylvania-based AIM developed guidelines for best practices for incorporating AIDC technology in the e-scrap recycling world.

“Ideally all recyclers would have readers and, ideally, everybody would put tags on at the beginning of the process, whether it’s manufacturing or assembly,” Evanhoe said. “But, pragmatically, I think your start is at a closed facility at a container level. That becomes a very manageable cost, until such point all the tags have been implemented at the manufacturing level.”

Intel is beginning to build RFID technology into some of its computer chips, he said.

“If we can get more manufacturers to use it for their own benefit … then at the tail end in the recycling chain they’ll already be on there,” he said.

Keeping inventory

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) recently installed a system costing about $3 million to help reduce costs and improve electronics inventorying accuracy. Tom King, project manager at the USPTO, told webinar listeners the fee-funded agency expects an annual savings of about $1.1 million by installing an RFID system.

The USPTO has about 112,000 electronic items. The RFID system, which the USPTO is currently testing, automatically tracks and records the movement and location of electronics in various buildings using fixed sensors in the ceilings. Staff also use handheld readers in some cases.

“As an asset moves around campus or moves around on a floor, it will report back its location,” King said. “Its ultimate, final location will then be transmitted to our inventory system and we will then reconcile the asset automatically.”

Complexities in tracking

Lauren Roman of TransparentPlanet, the webinar organizer, put up a slide at the end of the event asking whether e-scrap tracking should be regulated by governments or included in certification standards.

On that topic, Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network (BAN), asked how the technology can be used for enforcement. BAN, which created the e-Stewards certification, tracks illicit overseas shipments of hazardous waste.

“As we know in this industry a lot of things go sideways,” Puckett said. “And there’s a lot of people that don’t want to be tracked, and therein lies so much of the problem.”

Kelly Keogh, co-founder of certifying body Greeneye Partners, also discussed the complexities and difficulties of trying to keep tabs on downstream movement of materials. She used the example of batteries: An e-scrap processor may send batteries of different chemistries downstream to a vendor, and the partner may be equipped to recycle one type in-house but sends the rest further downstream.

The e-scrap company needs proof of where all the material ends up to comply with its certification, but the vendor, which may receive only a small percentage of its batteries from the electronics industry, doesn’t care.

“It’s hard to get them to have any incentive to actually manage their downstream flows and update their electronics recyclers on where that material is going,” she said.