Edition 58
Reverse Logistics: Product Life Cycle Management
by Ken Jacobsen, Vice President of Business Development, Connexus

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Proposal for a new industry standard: A schema for a reverse logistics product labeling standard.

There is a mature standard for packaging bar code labeling for forward logistics, but what about a standardized product QR code label for reverse logistics?

There are two primary motives for reverse logistics: product returns and end-of-life product disposal. Of the two, product returns is clearly and legally the responsibility of the manufacturer. There are numerous initiatives, and laws in some states, to make product disposal also the responsibility of the manufacturer.

There is no argument that e-waste is a problem. Americans get rid of 47.4 million computers, 27.2 million televisions, and 141 million mobile devices annually, according to the latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. Only a quarter of all those devices are collected for recycling. Many of these—if not most, contain toxic materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium. Most also contain precious and recyclable metals and materials. A million cell phones, for example, contain 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, Americans are projected to purchase 130 million new smartphones, 116 million new tablets, and 26 million laptops this year—tomorrow’s trash. The average American home contains 24 consumer devices.

IBM maintains one of the most aggressive product recycling programs and reports that less than one percent of their “harvesting” efforts end up incinerated or in a land fill1. In 2012 the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recorded over 8,000 eCycling locations in the US and growing. Their goal is to recycle one billion pounds of consumer electronics by 2016. Further incentivized by global legislation such as EPEAT2, RoHS3, WEEE4 as well as the California Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003 (EWRA) along with changing social attitudes, there is every reason to expect further expansion of such noble efforts.

There are a few lapses in the recycling process that can be alleviated by some new standards directly related to Reverse Logistics. Where and how to recycle any given product is often a mystery. A person wanting to properly dispose of an old CRT television, an old refrigerator, an old clothes drier, and a laptop computer may have to go to four different places. The problem is, where? This is especially relevant as some communities sponsor ad hoc drop off centers. What can go where on any given day?

With modern search engines and mapping technologies that include geo-tagging, the problem is not that hard to solve if the proper information is available. The proper information is known to the manufacturer and sometimes communicated in product documentation; but few consumers keep such information in discoverable places. We propose the creation of a labeling standard using tags and QR codes that could be placed on product packaging and on the products themselves that would contain sufficient data that could be up loaded into search engines. Real-time geo-tagging could identify appropriate disposal options. It can be projected that as the recycling industry becomes more sophisticated, there may even come to pass bidding wars over more valuable junk. Recycled phones and metal can be sold. Not to mention the fact that warranty management and merchandise returns would be more efficient if information were standardized. Today, such a standard does not exist. As a result it has not possible to “automate” the disposal of goods at the end-of-life.

With today’s scanning technology, there is plenty of room to encode lots of information. The QR Code itself is well standardized (ISO/IEC, 2005). But there is no official standard for QR contents. Well over 4000 characters are available to communicate a wealth of information that would be useful for all aspects of reverse logistics. Such a label could include the data provided in a UPC code, the product serial number and other information. It could include information such as manufacturing site, date of manufacture, expiration date. Length of warranty can be added along with EPEAT, RoHS compliance, etc.. There would still be sufficient “optional” space to include the marketing information that currently dominates the current application of QR coding. We would not have to standardize the technology: only the schema of the content.

It could well be that something as simple as the standardized tags on content in a QR code could greatly improve efficiencies in reverse logistics—both for product disposal and for product returns. The benefits of such encoding could help many fields. Consider not just e-waste, but the encoding system could provide instructions for the disposal or recycling of hazardous materials such as paint, motor oil, or pharmaceuticals. With over 4000 characters available for coding, disposal instructions could be accessed through web sites accessed through the QR code. “How to properly dispose of florescent bulbs,” can be a page accessed through a QR code imprinted on the bulb.

The Reverse Logistics Association is the ideal trade association to promote and manage such a product label encoding schema. For over a decade, our organization has been providing leadership and training in issues specifically focused on product returns and product end-of-life disposal. With over 6000 members and 90,000 subscribers to our magazine, we understand the needs of this industry from a practitioner’s perspective. We are not the only stake holders, however, and we are inviting other associations and interested industries to participate in the creation of a standardized product label. Four thousand characters is a lot of data. We want to do it once, and do it correctly.

There are many possibilities for data fields. With modern QR Code technology, there is room to include most of these—if not all. There are many stake holders: other trade associations, standards bodies, environmental projects. Each could contribute an encoded field. From that, small applications can be developed that seek the field designators and interprets the data.

The Reverse Logistics Association sees the value in this type of labeling to the degree that we will sponsor it, and maintain the resulting library. However, we need input as to what data fields should be designated. Thus, we are reaching out to stake holders to seek recommendations. The criteria for acceptance is broad. The recommended field must apply to a generic class of products and contain information relevant to either product returns or product disposal. The information must be useful. The information must be efficient; perhaps pointing to designated URLs for more detailed information. Finally it should be noted that the RLA is not assuming the responsibility for the creation of applications that will act upon the data fields designated with these codes.

We are at this time forming a sub-committee to polish this concept. This spring we will publish a proposed library of fields. We will then hold a “public” webinar to discuss the proposal. It is our intention to approve the resulting proposal at the June RLA conference in Amsterdam. At this time, we are seeking volunteers for the sub-committee. If you are interested please contact Ken Jacobsen, co-chair of the RLA Standards Committee at ken@jacobsen46.com or by phone at 510-490-7095, or simply sign up at www.RLA.ORG and join our effort.

1Bloomberg Businessweek, Jan 8, 2013 The Complex Business of Recycling E-Waste. It should be noted that both IBM and HP have strict supplier requirements regarding environmental issues.
2IEEE 1680 family of ‘green electronics’ standards that identify products as EPEAT Bronze, Silver or Gold
3The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive 2002/95/EC, RoHS, short for Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, was adopted in February 2003 by the European Union.
4The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE Directive) is the European Community directive 2002/96/EC on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) which, became European Law in February 2003.
Mr. Jacobsen is the Vice President of Business Developement for Connexus: a silicon valley software company focused on warranty management. He was responsible for the creation of the InfraRed Data Association (IrDA) and for the establishment of the PCMCIA. He has provided technology brokering services for HP, Toshiba, and Lockheed. He was part of the Pocket Intelligence Program at SRI, International and has been involved in numerous startups. Most recently, he was a Director of the Global Software Entrepreneurial Training Program at Oulu University in Finland.

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