by John Edwards

Disposable technologies promise convenience and savings

Apr 15, 200410 mins
Green IT

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, hand-wrought nails were so precious that when a house burned down, the owner and his friends would sift through the wreckage to retrieve the hardware. Today, thanks to modern mass-production techniques, nails are disposable items.

Modern technology is exerting a similar effect on the way people view many electronic products. Yesterday’s exotic, highly prized electronic devices generally are treated with casual disregard by today’s users. “We live in a disposable society,” observes Randi Altschul, inventor of the world’s first-and as yet unsuccessful-disposable mobile phone. (It’s made of paper.) “We want everything fast and short term.”

In the past, high product price and relatively low repair costs encouraged people to attempt to extend the life of even fairly trivial devices. Today, with product prices and repair costs flipped, it’s often cheaper to toss away a device once it breaks or becomes outdated, rather than trying to repair or upgrade it. As a result, a staggering array of products, including RFID tags, displays, mobile phones, digital cameras and printers are all falling, or have already fallen, into the “use it and lose it” category.

With more disposable technologies flooding the mainstream, CIOs face a dilemma. On the one hand, low-priced throwaway gadgets save enterprises money by reducing or eliminating the costs of repair and maintenance. On the other hand, disposable technologies carry their own baggage, including significant security and environmental concerns. Balancing disposability’s risks with its benefits is one of the key challenges CIOs will face in the coming years.

Tracking Disposability

Products are disposable when they become so inexpensive that the buyer has little regard for their purchase price. This, in turn, leads to broader use. In the RFID sector, for example, falling tag prices encourage the tracking of ever less consequential items.

At the moment, tag prices are still high enough-around 20 cents each-to prevent item-level tracking of low-cost products such as groceries. Jeff Woods, a principal analyst at Gartner, believes that when tags hit the 5 cent level, “then [RFID] can turn into a consumable, disposable technology.”

But RFID can already be considered a disposable technology when it comes to certain high-cost products, such as a plasma TV or a Prada handbag. People are another type of “high-value asset” that can be tracked by RFID. Precision Dynamics makes a wristband, incorporating Texas Instruments’ RFID chip technology, that can be worn by hospital patients, schoolchildren, and theme park and sporting event attendees.

At Hyland Hills Water World, a water park in Federal Heights, Colo., RFID wristbands may take the place of cash and credit cards (the park beta-tested the wristbands last year and is considering installing the system this summer). The bands work as wearable debit cards, allowing people to spend money simply by waving their banded wrists in front of readers located at snack bars, gift shops and other park venues. At the end of the day, bands are thrown away or saved as souvenirs. Although more expensive than bar-code imprinted wristbands, the RFID devices aren’t vulnerable to damage caused by pool chemicals, the sun or stretching. “The fact that they’re disposable means that we don’t have to worry about the bands’ long-term physical integrity,” says Bob Owens, an assistant manager at the park.

As with any technology that carries personal or financial information, particularly a disposable product, security is critical. Financial and identification data stored on the band is encrypted, preventing unauthorized users from reading data. While users can use their credit card to purchase things in the park, card account data isn’t stored on the band. “That information is kept on our server,” says Owens.

The system also eliminates the park’s need to transport large sums of cash to a bank at the end of the day. “There’s a great convenience factor with this technology,” says Owens. The park also benefits from “breakage”-the unspent credit that remains on bands after visitors leave the park.

Throwaway Circuits

Unlike RFID tags, which provide only tracking capabilities, inexpensive monitoring circuits enable enterprises to carefully monitor the condition of key assets. Cypak, for instance, has developed a sensor-based monitoring technology that’s aimed at product delivery surveillance and control. Using special conductive inks, Cypak prints a circuit, environmental sensors and an antenna, and it mounts microelectronics directly onto shipping packages. The company’s SecurePak technology stores a unique ID that can be programmed with unalterable information about the package’s source, destination and contents. SecurePak can then record whether the package it’s attached to has been opened, resealed or tampered with in any way during shipping and can even tell shippers and package recipients when and where such incidents occurred. The circuitry adds about $2 to a package’s cost, notes Jakob EhrensvŠrd, Cypak’s CEO. “This is basically a chip on a sticker,” he says. The reader costs about $10.

The Swedish Postal Service recently tested SecurePak for shipping high-value and confidential items such as computer equipment, precious artwork and government documents. Thord Axelsson, the postal service’s chief security officer, says the technology lets postal employees quickly determine when and where a package has been opened, making it cheaper and easier for postal authorities to pinpoint security weaknesses. Without the technology, finding the source of a package-tampering incident could require one to two weeks of investigation. With SecurePak, the information is available almost instantly.

SecurePak can even tell its user exactly how a package was tampered with such as “if it was opened indirectly or if they used a knife on the package,” says Axelsson. A customer slicing a package with a knife, for example, may violate a shipper’s instructions designed to protect the merchandise. SecurePak’s sensors also reveal if shipments have been exposed to potentially damaging environments, such as extreme heat or cold or rough handling.

Axelsson says the technology is cheap enough to be disposable, yet rugged enough to be reused several times. Although Axelsson was initially dubious that such a small, inexpensive technology could provide so much information, the recent tests have, in his opinion, proven SecurePak’s value.

Axelsson isn’t worried about SecurePak-equipped packages falling into the wrong hands. The system includes a built-in encryption engine that’s designed to keep unauthorized users from resetting the sensors or peering into shipping information, even after packaging material containing the SecurePak circuitry has been thrown away. “The information is protected even after it leaves our system,” says Axelsson.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

As a growing number of disposable devices find their way into everyday life, some people are concerned about their environmental impact. The technology industry has struggled for years with the problem of how to effectively rescue and recycle an ever-increasing torrent of “digi-effluvia.” Many people now fear that a flood of future disposable devices such as mobile phones, PDAs, digital cameras and MP3 players will glut already overflowing landfills.

Such concern is not unfounded. Yet many disposable products are being developed with an eye toward protecting the environment. The design for Altschul’s paper-based disposable mobile phone, for example, is more environmentally friendly than its plastic and metal counterparts. “Our phones will be made to disintegrate with the elements over time,” she promises. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), which could ultimately be sprayed onto disposable items such as signs and cereal boxes to create colorful and animated displays, are also considered to be eco-friendly. “You can eat the new OLEDs,” notes Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, an RFID consultancy. Emerging disposable devices also can be successfully integrated into existing recycling programs. “We are very green about the environment in Sweden, and we already have special programs for packing materials,” observes Axelsson.

Some kinds of disposable technology could actually help preserve the environment. Digital paper, which can be printed on several times before wearing out, could reduce the number of trees felled each year to produce the blizzard of paper needed to run most offices. Additionally, unalterable RFID tags or sensor circuits, when embedded into hazardous products, could let authorities trace items that are illegally discarded by their owners. RFID could also be used to spot and reclaim tagged items containing valuable materials that are dumped into landfills.

A Molecular Level

As digital components grow smaller, they will become increasingly integrated into everyday objects, such as office machines, home appliances and even clothing. As a result, people and businesses eventually may begin to lose sight of the need for recycling. Few people, for example, think about recycling the buttons on a discarded shirt or the zipper on a worn pair of jeans. The garment as a whole may be recycled, but not each and every component.

Yet the need to recycle isn’t likely to go away, and highly integrated technologies such as the smart clothing currently being developed by Sundaresan Jayaraman could actually make technology recycling far more complex. Jayaraman, a professor of textile engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is working on several types of smart clothing, including garments that incorporate computing and communications functions.

Figuring out how to recycle smart clothing promises to be a daunting task. “Disposable [smart] clothing will be a challenge because it will involve lots of different ma-terials, all close against one another,” says Edwin Thomas, a materials science and engineering professor at MIT, who is also working on smart clothing.

Eventually, in order to recycle electronic products effectively and efficiently, recovery technologies will have to begin mimicking natural processes by working on a molecular level. “Right now, we have this cereal box, and we think this has to be recycled into more paper,” says Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a technology think tank. “That’s what we know how to do now, and that’s what’s cheap to do now, but that certainly doesn’t have to be the case,” she notes. Molecular recycling would allow discarded products-such as a shirt incorporating a radio transceiver and an OLED screen-to be recycled without first breaking it down to its component parts: cotton, metal, plastic and so on. “We need to get much better at taking arrangements of atoms and molecules and changing them into what we want,” says Peterson.

In the meantime, Thomas believes that manufacturers should work together to make devices that use similar, easily recyclable materials. He notes that tech vendors could take a tip from ketchup makers. “Ketchup bottles used to be made from seven different kinds of plastic,” he notes. “They were terrific bottles, except that you commingled seven different plastics, and there was really no way to separate them.” Now, thanks to a unified standard, the bottles are easily recyclable. Like the ketchup makers, device vendors could collaborate on using similar materials in cases, circuit boards and other major components. “It’s a way of thinking green,” says Thomas.