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March 2017

Milking RFID technology for all it’s worth

At a glance
The team

Rahma Zayoud, supervised by Professor Habib Hamam, Department of at Université de Moncton

The challenge

Millions of recyclable milk cartons incorrectly end up in landfills every year

The solution

Develop a new program to ensure milk cartons get recycled efficiently

The outcome

An RFID-based system to track cartons and adjust pick-up routes to divert recyclable cartons from landfills

Recycling is a chore with which most Canadians are familiar, but that familiarity doesn’t mean it’s an effortless task — especially for local recycling services.

Consumers may not be aware of what’s recyclable in their communities, and common items like milk cartons may end up in landfill. In fact, some recycling is buried regardless of its “recyclability,” and the relative size and commonality of milk cartons means they alone can take up a significant amount of space in a landfill.

Now, researchers at the Université de Moncton have partnered with Thermopak, a regional packaging company, on a creative solution to keep the containers out of landfills. Rahma Zayoud, an electrical engineering PhD student, is incorporating radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. The term may sound familiar because it’s used in commercial and consumer applications, such as passports and licenses, shipping and logistics, and the identification of farm animals and pets.

Intern Rahma Zayoud

By attaching an RFID tag to a milk carton, Rahma will make it easier for recycling services to detect the presence of milk cartons, better adjust their routes and scheduling, and ensure that the cartons make it to the appropriate recycling destination. For those RFID-equipped cartons that accidentally end up in a landfill anyway, retrieval is similarly efficient.

But the process isn’t as simple as attaching an RFID sensor to the cartons: Rahma needed to determine the best type of RFID technology to use, and how to get the data from the RFIDs to communicate with recycling facilities and employees on the road.

Rahma’s supervisor, Dr. Habib Hamam, explained that common wifi signals cannot be used for specialized applications like this: “We are using a wireless language called ZigBee that is suitable for smaller applications like this one. It transmits a small amount of data and doesn’t interfere with any other nearby networks.”  Going forward, the team will be building and testing a wireless network between the containers, the recycling facility, and its fleet of vehicles. 

Although the project is still in progress, the team has seen some promising results. “We’ve published articles about our work already, and there are more to come,” Dr. Hamam enthuses. “And we’re presenting the research at an upcoming conference.” Rahma is similarly pleased: “Working with an industry partner through Mitacs Accelerate has given me the chance to gain professional experience and learn how research gets commercialized.”

Mitacs would like to thank the Government of Canada along with Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of the Accelerate program.