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RFID Technology Offers Sustainability Opportunities in Korea and Beyond

Words by Leon Kaye

Radio frequency identification (RFID) has been around for decades, and in recent years has become more important to industries such as retail for the ability to identify multiple objects at once without reading a bar code. For several years Walmart has required its vendors to use RFID tags and has started to place the tags on individual items.

RFID has other applications, too, including the management and accounting of large items like cars, computer equipment and yes, people. If you have a passport issued after 2006, it has an RFID tag. Toll collection in metropolitan areas is now easier because of “Fast-Trak” and other automated systems that allow traffic to flow quickly. While I was in Seoul a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity thanks to SK Group to visit a smart grid trade show and at another floor in the massive COEX Convention Center, the 7th RFID/USN Korea 2011 show. The visit gave a lesson on how RFID can play a role in reducing waste and encourage more sustainable business practices.

Some of RFID’s applications on display in Korea run from the practical to the creepy. RFID tags, which come in a variety of shapes, sizes and strengths, make what was once impossible easy--and disconcerting to those of us who enjoy a little mischief in life.  Students can sport a card with an embedded RFID tag that allows parents to monitor whether they are really studying or goofing off at the local comic book reading room (manhwa bang). The routine morning attendance call is obsolete as everyone can be counted at once, and during the day parents can receive an SMS or email about their kids’ whereabouts. Elderly people can also receive emergency assistance immediately should they fall ill, rendering the Med-Alert commercials of the 1990s seem long antiquated. And of course, manufacturing processes benefit from increased automation.

But what is exciting, (or Orwellian depending on your perspective), are the opportunities RFID provides for waste diversion and improved agricultural practices. Since the 1990s, public service announcements have urged citizens and businesses to handle food waste more responsibly--a huge challenge if you have ever sat down for a Korean meal and all the side dishes that come along with it. That's because a lot of water is required to process that food waste, and it all gets discharged into the ocean. By 2013, Korea will stop discharging grey water into the sea. To that end, residents and businesses will separate food waste and dispose it in specially designed bins. On the trade show floor, an SK employee explained how RFID tags will be able to gauge the weight of food waste to the exact gram. Upon holding his or her individually issued card embedded with an RFID tag on a sensor, a lid opens, the user dumps in any food waste, and the bin weighs and adds the food waste processing fee to the resident’s sewer bill.

Farming will also benefit from RFID technology. In a densely populated and mountainous country like Korea, farmland is at a premium. Much of Korea’s fresh produce is grown in “vinyl houses” that are crammed into just about every open corner imaginable in the outskirts of metropolitan areas and rural regions. Many farmers live far from the farms they operate, however. With RFID tagging, not only can livestock be monitored remotely, but those clear vinyl panels can be opened or closed remotely depending on weather patterns. Farmers can now easily take advantage of sunlight and precipitation patterns more efficiently, but farmers will spend less time on the road--reducing both carbon emissions and farmers’ frustration.

RFID is the lynchpin connecting the real and virtual worlds. But during a time of rising food prices, climate volatility and diminished resources, RFID can help conserve and manage our most important assets more effectively, too.

All photos courtesy of Leon Kaye.


Leon Kaye lived in Korea during the 1990s. He is editor of GreenGoPost.com and also contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.  He lives in California.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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