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HolyGrail project opens new possibilities for sorting technologies using digital watermarking

The HolyGrail project, led by Procter & Gamble (P&G) and facilitated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has published information on the use of digital watermarking technology to improve sorting of recyclable material.

As a full value-chain pre-competitive collaboration project involving 29 partners, HolyGrail was established to discover how the tagging of packaging can impact the accuracy of sorting and recycling systems.

On May 23, the project came to an end following three years of research. According to the project partners, the key precepts behind the project were that, once packaging is designed for circularity, collection challenges are solved, which includes putting the right collection system in place and consumer participation.

The research found that digital watermark technologies has the potential to bring disruption in this space through the creation of “smart” packaging, which will open up new possibilities currently not feasible with existing sorting technologies. These include:

  • Making a distinction between food and non-food packaging;
  • Proper identification of full-body shrink sleeve bottles;
  • ODR packaging (opaque and difficult to recycle, including black packaging);
  • Distinct mono and multi-layer flexible packaging;
  • Proper identification of rigid multi-layer packaging materials;
  • Safe introduction of new materials not hindering established recycling streams and proper identification of recyclable versus compostable packaging; and
  • Ability for closed-loop recycling.

Project leader of HolyGrail, Gian de Belder, said low recycling rates are mainly related to low collection numbers and low sorting efficiencies.

“Project HolyGrail looked into different technologies to improve the latter. Packaging can be made intelligent through the use of digital watermarks, without having an impact on established recycling streams. This intelligence can be used throughout the full value-chain,” de Belder said.

“During this project, the concept of an add-on module onto an existing sorter has been successfully proven. This now opens a variety of possibilities today not feasible with standard sorting technologies.”

The Digimarc Barcode was shown in testing to overcome many current limitations in plastic sorting technology, making it easier to accurately identify plastics that qualify for recycling and prevent their unnecessary disposal into landfills or incinerators.

It reportedly provides a unique, scannable 3D identity when applied in plastic substrates. The dataset carried by the code can convey a wide-range of attributes, including the waste item’s manufacturer, product SKU (stock keeping unit) and manufacturing facility.

This automatically instructs sorting mechanisms to separate the plastic waste for higher quality and quantity of recyclable materials, helping to ensure that manufacturers can meet their public commitments for use of recycled content and to comply with government mandates. The scanning capability can also be retrofitted into existing sorting facilities upon commercialisation.

The Digimarc Barcode is also said to be applicable to shrink sleeves and paper labels providing opportunities for increasing the likelihood of identification and the amount of data that can be obtained. The multiple layer enhancement supports many other efficiencies in manufacturing, supply-chain, retail operations and consumer engagement.

The report on the HolyGrail project stated that the Digimarc Barcode can provide a broader role in the circular economy by allowing environmentally-conscious consumers to scan products with smartphones to learn how to properly separate plastic objects in conformity with the kerbside waste service provider.

Digimarc chief evangelist, Larry Logan, said the Digimarc Barcode delivers a circular economy approach to packaging from birth in manufacturing, to rebirth as recycled products,.

“Digimarc Barcode is unique because it creates intelligent objects that provide hyper-sorting in recycling facilities. The HolyGrail test results demonstrate a viable path towards much greater plastics recycling, leading to reduced waste and validates our engagement with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment.

“We are excited to help brands, retailers and the recycling eco-system satisfy demanding regulatory requirements and public commitments for sustainability. We look forward to broadly licensing our technology to the industry upon commercialisation,” Logan said.

During the course of the project, invisible codes have been integrated into both printed materials (labels, sleeves, in-mould labels, films/pouches), and directly into a mould (PET bottles, HDPE bottles, thermo-formed trays, injection moulded crates).

To build on the HolyGrail project, P&G said the next step is to implement a semi-industrial line and then to roll out the project on a wider scale.