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Case Study: TRACE Project


Led by Pragmatic, Technology-enabled Reusable Assets for a Circular Economy (TRACE) is a two-year project that aims to demonstrate how smart technologies can enable reusable packaging at scale, beginning with smart, reusable packaging for food and beverage retail.

Funded by the Innovate UK Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge, the project is wide-reaching, considering packaging design; consumer perception and barriers to entry; system digitisation and modelling; and sorting and segregation.

The challenge

As concern mounts around the environmental impact of plastic, pressure from consumers and regulatory authorities has renewed interest in reusable packaging solutions. But for the grocery sector, this transition is challenging due to complex supply chains, low product margins, and changing consumer behaviour.

Adding intelligence is an efficient way to enable rapid sorting and automation, optimisation of asset flows and consumer engagement. But, due to cost, smart reusable packaging has typically been reserved for high-value items, limiting its application.


The solution

As part of TRACE, Pragmatic has developed a smart solution using RFID tags based on low-cost FlexICs. The tags can be embedded directly into individual pieces of packaging or applied as a durable RFID-enabled label that is tough enough to withstand scores of wash cycles.

This low-cost intelligence makes a considerable difference to the viability of reusables and provides multiple benefits throughout the value chain. End-to-end traceability helps to reduce loss rates, improving the scheme’s economic viability; streamlining consumer returns positively impacts reuse rates – one of the major factors in determining the viability of returnable solutions.

Crucially, the environmental impact of the FlexICs is minimal. Just microns thick, each FlexIC is thinner than a human hair and weighs less than 0.2 mg. And while they do use a polymer (read: plastic) substrate, a single drinking straw contains more plastic than 2,000 FlexICs. Adding intelligence to a 500ml, single-use PET bottle, for example, would typically increase its carbon footprint by just <0.5 per cent.

Other benefits include:

Process Automation

Items can be scanned quickly and without clear line of sight, allowing for a high level of automation from the point of sale to completion of the returns process.

Data Based Insights

Readers throughout the value chain provide valuable insights for retailers and brand owners, from helping to identify bottlenecks, to understanding consumer return patterns.

Secure, Convenient Returns

Since return points are small and low cost, they can be deployed at scale, reducing the distance consumers must travel. The RFID reader is embedded within the return point itself, ensuring that an item is only scanned once it has been returned, reducing potential for fraud.

Streamline Customer Experience

Integrated readers within return points also allow consumers to simply tap and drop, without the need to scan individual items. The unique asset identity allows rewards to be allocated for returns, to provide incentives beyond simply ‘doing the right thing’.

Easy Integration With Home Delivery

Lightweight, handheld scanners permit home delivery drivers to maintain traceability, and consumers to return packaging easily from their home.

The solution is set to be trialled by a major UK supermarket. A post-collection sorting system is also in development with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, part of the University of Sheffield.

Potential use cases:

Find out how Pragmatic’s solution is used in other case studies