RFID and the death of single use plastic


July 25, 2023 | By RetailME Bureau

Lorna Hopkins, RFID Specialist, EMEA, Zebra Technologies

Humans love plastic. It’s clean, durable, shiny, hygienic, keeps our food fresh and is recyclable too. But it’s everywhere. In the ocean, in the air, and even inside us. Just as scary, 80-85% of marine litter found on European Union (EU) beaches is plastic. And by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, cautioned Lorna Hopkins, RFID Specialist, EMEA, Zebra Technologies.

That’s why restaurants, retailers, hospitality providers and others who serve food and beverages must make changes now to be part of the solution versus a part of the problem. After all, consumers are expecting businesses to become more eco-friendly, and many governments are mandating it. For instance, since July 3, 2021, The Single Use Plastic Directive has banned plastic cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers, polystyrene cups containers and lids across EU member states. Similar legislation comes into play in the UK from October 2023. Meanwhile, the UAE will regulate the production, distribution and use of single-use plastic products from January 1, 2024, and impose a blanket ban on import, production and trade of single-use plastic products starting January 1, 2026.

Though best for the planet, these new laws may not have been necessarily good for quick service restaurants (QSRs) and other businesses that serve food and beverages. They have probably been hit hard by the forced change as the new legislation has stirred things up. These operators might be scrambling to find alternative drink lids, straws, coffee stirrers and on a grander scale new tubs and totes that can be washed and reused easily within their fast-paced operation.

Even though operating responsibly and sustainably is the right way to go, it doesn’t discount the struggles to join the fight against climate change. There’s a lot to think about, including proving compliance with regulations and operating in a more environmentally friendly way in the back of house, where changes may not be so evident to the average consumer.

Having said that, one major global fast-food chain has already implemented a way to track the plastic tubs it uses to store ingredients, prep dishes etc. from production through reuse to final recycling. The innovative solution features dishwasher-ready radio frequency identification (RFID) tags applied at the time of manufacturing to uniquely ID plastics. Using a handheld RFID reader, tags are easily read each time items are sent for cleaning. When they return sparkling fresh, the items are quickly scanned back into the restaurant ensuring there is enough stock for the day. The plastics have a finite number of washes prior to requiring replacement. When nearing the threshold, a software app alerts the store or district managers so they can order new stock.

With this technology efficiency of store staff is ensured too because they don’t have to personally track usage or be held accountable if they miscount. Tubs have RFID readers fitted above them. A display alerts the team if and how many reusable items have been discarded so they can be retrieved to prevent fines for landfill breaches. The solution is simple to install and with a real-time view of the lifecycle of reusable assets prevents the loss of plastic items while avoiding compliance breaches.

Even better, the system isn’t just restricted to plastic. It can be used to track other reusable items, reduce shrinkage and cut food waste. The result is a more efficient operation that helps save plastic, money and safeguards the world.

What’s more, RFID technology isn’t just designed to help restaurants track their assets. At Zebra, we have installed thousands of bespoke asset tracking solutions globally that include but are not restricted to monitoring NFL players, tracking casino chips, loss-prevention of designer glasses, protecting endangered cacti and more.

By Lorna Hopkins, RFID Specialist, EMEA, Zebra Technologies

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