Integrating RFID Technology into Waste Management Operations

With data generated by RFID-enabled systems, waste haulers and waste management solution providers can benefit from a new degree of monitoring and control of the waste-management process.

Ken Lynch

What would you do if you knew of an innovative technology that could be implemented throughout many of your waste management processes? One that could improve the efficiency of your hauling fleet and staff, help reduce pollution and return higher profits? Well, it’s here and if you haven’t already considered it, now is the time. With significant advancements realized over the last several years, radio frequency identification (RFID) is finding its way into a great number of transportation and logistics operations, including many in the waste management market.

While the early hype about how RFID would transform the supply chain and make out-of-stock problems a thing of the past has been quieted, many industries and markets are now adopting RFID-enabled solutions to create a competitive advantage. Over the past few years, it has been recognized that organizations wanting to improve efficiencies, enhance customer service and decrease operating costs can benefit from implementing auto-identification and sensing technologies like RFID.

Most of us are familiar with RFID being used for the identification and tracking of assets. RFID technology is deployed throughout many industries for just that—identifying valuable assets and reporting their last “seen” location. Of course there are many practical uses of RFID for tracking assets within the waste management market including locating missing or stolen containers, but the value offered by the combination of ruggedized ultra high-frequency (UHF) RFID tags and in-vehicle RFID readers doesn’t end there. By RFID-enabling hauling vehicles, trash and recycling bins, and their facilities, waste management companies can automate customer billing data entry, streamline recycling programs, and provide many new and enhanced services to customers.  Further, the integration of RFID with complementary technologies like GPS, cellular and telematics systems can, among other things, improve route planning and real-time vehicle efficiency monitoring.

A Technology Evolved

So what’s different now versus the years of the Wal-Mart RFID mandate? Of all RFID and sensing technologies available, the performance of UHF Passive RFID (the same technology mandated by Wal-Mart in 2003 and now rolled out to support their retail floor inventory management) is advancing phenomenally. Consider the following: the read range of passive UHF RFID tags has quadrupled in past few years, read rates have increased from 200 to 1,200 tags per second, and read accuracy is near 100 percent. The cost of Passive RFID tags has also decreased by a factor of five over this same period.

As the market evolves from the use of one-size-fits-all RFID readers toward highly integrated solutions, diverse RFID reader form factors becomes more important. Today, small UHF RFID modules are being embedded into mobile devices and a variety of stationary RFID readers are available for enterprise, commercial and industrial environments where high-performance in a wide range of operating conditions is required.

More interesting than any standalone technology, is the integration of multiple identification and sensing technologies into a single device or solution. Combining RFID, GPS, GPRS, cellular, Wi-Fi and other technologies will allow everyday objects to deliver valuable data that can be used for a myriad of new applications. Similar to the widespread integration of GPS into today’s commercial and consumer positioning solutions RFID can transform markets and is a natural extension to many waste management operations. Consider the following examples.

Automation of Time-Sensitive Processes

One of the most significant benefits that can be realized by RFID-enabling a waste management operation is process automation. For example, with RFID readers integrated into trash hauling vehicles and RFID tags applied to trash bins, many data collection processes can be automated. This process results in reduced data entry and reporting costs as well as more timely and accurate customer billing. By providing real-time data, RFID systems can also be used to enhance vehicle efficiency monitoring and improve route planning.

The bottom line is, by implementing RFID to automate time-sensitive processes that are prone to human error, waste management organizations can improve workflow and save time and money.

Asset Tracking

As noted previously, asset tracking with RFID extends far beyond identifying and tracking lost or stolen waste containers. Need to know the location of your truck parts and repair tools at the shop? RFID can be used for that too. Having access to timely and accurate information about the location and status of critical assets such as tools and equipment are directly related to the successful completion of a project and your bottom line. This can be achieved through the implementation of RFID choke-points in dedicated areas, feeding specific asset tracking applications, or by integrating RFID readers directly into your IT infrastructure and IT systems for an enterprise-wide solution.

Recycling Programs

Decreasing the amount of waste that households and businesses produce and discard has become a worldwide focus in an effort to reduce pollution and conserve our Earth’s resources for future generations. To achieve this, recycling, resource conservation and pollution reduction programs of all kinds are being implemented across the globe. Over the last several years, it has become increasingly clear that the use of RFID technology can help streamline and encourage participation in these programs.

Through the integration of RFID readers and weight sensors into vehicle lift systems, and RFID tags on the curbside recycling bins, waste haulers can easily identify bin ownership and combine data from the RFID tags with the bin weight to issue credits to participants based on the amount of recyclable material they contribute. Program participants can cash in their credits at national retailers or local businesses participating in the recycling program. Several recycling programs following this practice have been implemented worldwide and are gaining popularity.

Clearing Hazardous Debris

RFID systems can be used to improve the collection, disposal and traceability of hazardous or otherwise sensitive waste material. RFID tags applied to hauling vehicles can provide both the unique identification of each vehicle in the fleet and can be encoded with each vehicle’s shipping data. Reading this data with fixed-position or handheld RFID readers can take the place of manually completing several forms. By using re-writable RFID tags, the same RFID infrastructure can be used again and again to save time and reduce potential errors.

Not only does an RFID-enabled system help reduce the paperwork associated with each shipment by automating data collection, it makes the overall operation more efficient and helps those responsible for providing the safest environment possible develop best practices that can be used for future projects.

Smart Packaging

Similar to the retail industry where source-tagging at the point of manufacture is driving efficiencies throughout the entire retail supply chain, innovations in smart packaging are being used to help reduce waste far down the chain. In addition to adding safety mechanisms such as tamper-proofing and providing the ability to measure the freshness of produce, information from RFID and sensor-enabled smart packaging can be used by to help sort packaging materials in waste streams.

Waste management organizations can take advantage of this emerging trend to differentiate their service offerings and claim leadership among socially conscious businesses.

New Degree of Monitoring and Control

With data generated by RFID-enabled systems, waste haulers and waste management solution providers can benefit from a new degree of monitoring and control of the waste-management process. Fixed position and mobile RFID readers uniquely bridge enterprise, yard and in-vehicle uses, and the integration of multiple identification technologies such as GPS, GPRS, cellular, Wi-Fi and RFID into a single device or solution allows everyday objects like vehicles and trash containers to deliver new, valuable data to a variety of unique and powerful applications.

Ultimately, the RFID-enabled waste management solution architecture and components will be determined by how customers want to realize value from location and auto-identification data. Visibility may be presented in distinct dashboards: in-vehicle dashboards where real-time data offers value within the vehicle or enterprise dashboards where historical and real-time data will be managed at the enterprise level. Solution architecture may change with scale, from initial to full-scale deployment, but by deploying standards-based RFID products and solutions developed with flexibility in mind, the opportunities seem limitless. The most important thing to understand is that the technology itself is no longer barrier to entry.

Ken Lynch is director of marketing at ThingMagic (Cambridge, MA), a Division of Trimble. Trimble’s ThingMagic Division is a provider of UHF RFID reader engines, development platforms and design services for a wide range of applications. ThingMagic develops products for demanding high-volume applications and provides consulting and design services to create solutions for challenging applications. With more than 15 years of marketing and business development experience, Ken has a proven history of marketing early and mid-stage technology companies to next stage of growth. His experience spans several dynamic and fast growing industries including RFID, Location Based Services, Wi-Fi, VoIP and video conferencing. Ken is responsible for the division’s marketing strategy, marketing communications, lead generation, channel marketing and social media programs. He can be reached at (866) 833-4069, via e-mail at [email protected] or visit www.thingmagic.com.