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Barcode Tracking vs. RFID Tracking for Managing Returnable Containers

October 13, 2020 by Norman Matos

Barcodes VS RFID ImageIf you’re a company that relies on returnable containers to do business, managing hundreds of assets that frequently change their location and status can quickly become pandemonium if there isn’t a system in place to keep tabs on them all. This is where returnable container management software like TrackAbout saves time, money, and provides peace of mind. Tracking software uses tags and scanning technology to monitor and report on the status, condition and location of your containers..

Powering the data in the software are the tags attached to each returnable container. There are quite a few options when it comes to tags: RFID, barcode, IoT and GPS tracking. While they all have their benefits and drawbacks depending on the use case, for the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on the two most commonly used: RFID tags and barcodes. Here’s what we’ll cover:

What are Barcodes?

A barcode is machine-readable code in the form of a pattern of lines or dots, printed on and identifying a product.They can be scanned with virtually any device, including smartphones, tablets, rugged devices or keyboard scanners. You can fully determine whether barcodes are right for you using our Guide to Using Barcodes for Asset Tracking, but here are the pros and cons.

Benefits of Barcode Tracking 

  • Low cost - It is not a coincidence that barcodes are everywhere. Without a doubt, barcode tracking is the tracking method with the lowest cost. Some of the reasons why barcodes are an inexpensive option:
    • Barcodes are cheap to buy in bulk, costing usually around 10 cents each. This pricing compares favorably to the $1 to $3 cost for rugged metal-mount RFID tags and $150+ for GPS trackers
    • You have the option of providing your own printed barcodes or purchasing high-quality ones that offer better UV light and chemical protection with superior adhesives
    • They can be scanned with virtually any device
  • Easy to use - Barcodes are self-adhesive and can be attached to virtually any surface, making them the ideal choice when you have thousands of objects for which you need to keep track. Barcodescan easily be applied in the field, negating the need to bring the assets to a central location for modifications.
  • Versatile - You will not be tied to any particular hardware with barcodes, as opposed to RFID which rely on specialized equipment to read their signals. Barcodes can be one- or two-dimensional, Datamatrix or QR codes. Barcodes often include a human-readable number below the barcode.

Drawbacks of Barcode Tracking

  • Line of sight required - Barcodes require a line of sight with each code.
  • More time to scan - Because barcodes require line of sight to scan, it takes longer to scan many of them then to scan the same number of RFID tags. 
  • Limited data - A barcode has a limited amount of data it can store.

What is RFID?

RFID (radio frequency identification) asset tracking involves tagging your assets with RFID tags, which contain a chip and antenna. RFID tags are scanned by either portable or mounted RFID readers. The read range varies depending on the type of chips and readers. It can be very short for low frequency RFID to across a room for ultra high frequency (UHF) RFID. The type of tag and reader must be carefully selected with consideration for the asset and the places where it needs to be scanned.


Benefits of RFID Tracking

  • No line of sight required - RFID uses radio waves to communicate, so the tag only needs to be within the range of the reader. Not requiring a line of sight is especially beneficial when you have containers positioned in such a way that it is not easy to access their tags, such as containers stacked on top of each other.
  • Read multiple tags at once - This ability is advantageous when you have a large number of smaller objects to inventory. For example, a pallet containing numerous gas cylinders can instantly be read by the scanner, removing the need for the operator to scan each object individually.
  • Flexibility - RFID tags can be overlain with barcodes, giving you the flexibility of choosing both tracking methods as your needs may warrant. Once dual RFID/barcodes are affixed to the assets you want to track, the choice is yours whether you want to monitor them via either method.

Drawbacks of RFID Tracking

  • Limited and expensive technology capability - RFID tags can only be read by RFID readers, which can carry a hefty price tag. RFID handheld scanning devices can cost around $2,500, while fixed (mounted) scanners can range upwards of $5,000 per reader. When multiple devices are required to cover multiple areas, this adds up quickly. Tags can also cost up to 20x more than barcodes.
  • Potential for missed or accidental scanning - While RFID technology is robust, there remains the possibility for items to get missed during the scanning process. It’s also possible to scan an asset unintentionally and not know it.
  • Interference- Some materials such as metals and liquids can interfere with the RFID signal, making them inappropriate to use.

How Do You Decide Between RFID Tracking and Barcode Tracking?

Once you decide you need to start managing your returnable containers with tracking software, the next step is to determine the kind of tag you will use.

When considering whether to use RFID tracking or barcode tracking to manage returnable containers, it’s important to consider all the benefits and drawbacks associated with each option. To help think through which option is best suited to your unique tracking use case, here are some things to consider.

What are you tracking?

The size, shape, and material of the container will impact the type of tag you use. While you can affix a barcode to any type of container regardless of what it contains, there are limitations when you can use RFID. For example, RFID cannot be used on containers made of metal, or containers holding liquid. These items tend to interfere with the signal used by the RFID devices, and will cause headaches in your tracking process.

Barcodes are a great choice for any container that is touched by a person when it is moved around. To prevent headaches when barcode tracking, you have to be sure that the barcodes on the returnable containers are accessible and visible at each time and place you would like to scan them. 

How are you tracking?

If you’re looking to scan multiple containers at one time, RFID will be your best option as it can read multiple tags at the same time. If your proposed RFID tracking process involves individually scanning around a few dozen containers at a time, you can likely design an equally effective process using only barcodes, and for a much lower cost. This brings us to the last point for consideration.

What is your budget?

Utilizing RFID tracking requires investment in RFID tracking devices, which tend to cost around $2,500 per handheld reader or $5,000 for stationary portals. Then there’s the RFID tags themselves to consider, which go for about $1 per tag.

Contrast that with barcode tracking: barcode readers are already available through any mobile device that your team already has, so the only cost incurred is in the purchase of barcodes themselves, which go for about $0.20 per duplicate barcode pair. We usually recommend duplicate barcodes for each container to speed up scanning and to give a backup if one label is damaged.


These are just a few things to consider when first deciding which technology is best for your container tracking needs. Carefully look at your business processes and see which type of tracking system will provide you with not only the basic functionality that you need, but the specialized capabilities that will help your organization streamline processes, improve operations and grow both productivity and profits. For more on information on returnable container management software, see our comprehensive guide on asset tracking.


TrackAbout is a leader in helping companies keep track of their returnable containers. We'll help you choose the tracking technology that works for you and set you up with a powerful but easy to use system to manage your assets. Get in touch to learn more about how container tracking can save you money and help you protect your investment.

Written by Norman Matos