Imagine a world where the environment is greatly improved by small identification devices. Traffic flow is consistent, which limits idling and the inefficient use of fuel; citizens are rewarded for recycling goods that are often inappropriately disposed of; and consumers are accurately informed of the environmental and health attributes of products before they buy.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can make all of this possible using readily available technologies that transmit an identification code linked to an object such as a consumer product or automobile. Already being used to reduce traffic congestion and on garbage and recycling bins in the European Union and some U.S. cities, RFID has been proven to work effectively and efficiently, and may help people limit their personal environmental impact as well as make more informed choices about the items they consume.

"Radio-Frequency Identification: Environmental Applications," a research brief by Valerie Thomas of the Georgia Institute of Technology explores some of the environmental applications of RFID. The paper, published by the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, explores four different scenarios ranging from reducing traffic congestion to increasing recycling efficiency.

The paper makes the point that, in order for more widespread adoption and implementation of RFID technology to be successful, a number of concerns must be addressed, including privacy and the possible environmental impacts of the tags themselves.

"RFID holds great potential for traffic management, recycling, product tracking, and more. But for it to be successful, the public must be confident that the information generated by this technology will not be abused," says David Rejeski, director of the Foresight and Governance Project.

Privacy advocates worry about the potential for tracking individuals or cataloging purchasing habits using information gathered wirelessly from RFID tags. And despite their tiny size, introduction of trace amounts of metals from the tags into existing recycling streams and the environment could be problematic for waste managers and sensitive ecosystems. For these reasons, realizing the environmental potential of RFID will require initiatives supported by the public sector and environmental advocates, cross-industry coordination and cooperation, and effective oversight.