U.K. project to pilot NFC for tracking reusable containers

RFID Journal article | By Claire Swedberg

The two-year TRACE project, led by a consortium that includes PragmatIC Semiconductor, will monitor NFC-tagged beverage bottles and food trays as they are sold, returned to a store, cleaned and then reused.

  • Digitizing Reusable Containers and Packaging
  • Incentivizing Reuse of Containers with NFC
  • Attracting Partners for NFC and RFID Trials

A wide-scale project aimed at enabling reusable assets for a circular economy has begun testing how Near Field Communication (NFC) can identify and trace the movement of plastic packaging through multiple uses. The project, known as TRACE (Technology-enabled Reusable Assets for a Circular Economy) is being conducted by a consortium of participants, both academic and industry partners, led by technology company PragmatIC Semiconductor.

The project, launched in February 2022, will take place for two years and will include support from technology providers, academic organizations, engineers, retailers and food packaging companies. Part of the program will include testing the use of NFC tags on reusable beverage containers and food packaging within stores and in an end-to-end supply chain. The pilot could involve tracing a container through use, cleaning and reuse. The goal is to determine whether technology can enable the greater use of plastic packaging to increase sustainability and reduce carbon impact. Funding comes from a U.K. government grant, as well as from participating firms.

According to PragmatIC, reusable packaging could have a significant impact on the environment. The company says circular economy advocacy organization Ellen MacArthur Foundation has reported that approximately 97 percent of packaging is currently used only once, while much of the single-use plastic packaging could be replaced with a reusable version, which would significantly reduce the volume of plastic that ends up in the waste stream.

Digitizing Reusable Containers and Packaging
The TRACE project includes research and engineering into plastic packaging durable enough to be reused, as well as software development for a system to track packages. Non-profit recycling organization RECOUP and the University of Sheffield, for instance, are working together to prototype and test new packaging designs. PragmatIC's aim is to test the digitization of reusable packaging to monitor bottles and trays that have traditionally been sent to recycling or landfills.

PragmatIC is offering its NFC FlexICs, which can be attached to each package and provide a unique digital identity (UID) for that item that can then be managed in dedicated software. The project will use the UIDs in two ways: first, to track every item and provide lifecycle data to demonstrate economic and environmental benefits; and second, to provide consumers with access to deposits or rewards. The second use case could enable relationships between consumers and product brands and retailers, says Joshua Young, PragmatIC Semiconductor's circular economy manager.

Participants in the project include Topolytics, a software provider that is building a platform for managing the movements of materials so that the team can make the best decisions regarding how to optimize the system. Other packaging technologists, composite engineers and mechanical engineers are participating as well, including U.K. material-recovery facility manufacturer Ken Mills Engineering, in order to better understand typical waste and recycling management.

Incentivizing Reuse of Containers with NFC
Additionally, psychologists will provide predictions and patterns in consumer behaviors, such as how shoppers perceive reusable packaging. The project will serve as an industry-wide extension of a 2021 PragmatIC project known as SPRITE (see U.K. NFC Pilot Focuses on Recycling), which is still underway. The SPRITE project is focused on incentivizing consumers to return packaging for reuse or recycling, with the use of NFC technology.

The TRACE testing's focus will be on food and drink containers. Many details have yet to be determined, however, Young says. "There's more work which needs to be done," he states, "to determine the kind of different product categories which are really best suited" for reuse streams. That means packaging that can sustain use, washing and reuse, multiple times. The initial target, he reports, will be on the packaging of bottled drinks, fruits, vegetables, and deli selections, such as sandwiches and salads offered by grocery stores.

In the case of beverages, an NFC tag, transmitting at 13.54 MHz and compliant with ISO 14443, is attached to a plastic bottle. The unique ID number encoded on the tag could be linked to the product's stock-keeping unit. A consumer could purchase the bottle, and an NFC reader would capture the tag ID during the point-of-sale transaction. The customer could then leverage a smartphone to access data from the NFC tag, such as where to return the empty bottle. The bottle's tag could be read again as it was received back at the store. Another alternative would be for the shopper to return the empty bottle to a delivery driver who brings groceries to their home following an online purchase. The driver could read the tag ID at that time as well.

In addition, the project will test food packaging trays, such as those in which fruits and vegetable are packed—for example, plastic shells containing strawberries or tomatoes. This rigid packaging is designed to protect the fresh product and extend its life, but the packages are typically discarded or recycled. "That actually could be a perfect opportunity to have something which is more robust and durable," Young says, "which you can return and that can be reused."

PragmatIC is currently working with potential partners to provide appropriate inlays in which the company's FlexIC could be embedded, which would be durable enough to survive multiple washes, and could be removed at the end of a container's life. "So, we have some work and some learning ahead to look at that," Young states. "It will all be part of the process of identifying the best inlay and adhesive."

Attracting Partners for NFC and RFID Trials
As part of the pilots, the TRACE program may test the feasibility of providing consumers with a reward for returning a reusable package, while enabling them to receive that reward via an NFC tag scan. Although the project is still in its early days, Young says, various retailers, waste-management organizations and packaging manufacturers have shown interest in supporting the group's efforts.

Ultimately, Young expects TRACE to conduct at least two retailer trials and one end-to-end trial from the store, through cleaning and reuse, within the next two years. "We're already starting to piece together some of the puzzle of what [the lifecycle of a reusable package] would look like for different product categories and for different retailers," he says. "It feels quite a big task right now, at the start of the project, but we're hugely ambitious and excited about the potential."

According to Young, the technology focus is on NFC rather than, for instance, UHF RFID, because of the ubiquity of NFC readers in the form of smartphones. He says the team believes NFC can bridge the gap of consumer engagement, as well as be used in industrial settings, such as for identifying a package in the supply chain. If the consumer goods market were able to move to 20 percent of its packaging being reused, he notes, that would equate to a $10 billion cost reduction for brands and retailers.

The TRACE project's focus is specifically on plastic packaging, rather than on the use of other materials. That, Young explains, is due to the large number of plastic goods already in use, as well as their durability for potential reuse. On a sustainability level, he says, "Plastic isn't a bad thing. It's just how we treat it and handle it" that has been unsustainable.

In March, the firm opened its second fabrication line for the production of its FlexIC integrated circuits at PragmatIC Park, located in Durham, England. With this addition, the company reports, that facility will become the hub of a global network of fabs, with space for at least four additional FlexLogIC lines. PragmatIC says it has a vision of working with its key ecosystem partners to create a center of excellence for flexible semiconductor design and integration.

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