More than 85 companies and organizations have joined forces in search of the Holy Grail of recycling.
The European Brands Association, AIM, is leading the project that aims to prove that digital watermarking on packaging can support waste sorting at a high scale. The HolyGrail 2.0 project would use digital technologies to improve sorting in recycling facilities, which would in turn improve the quality of materials separated and baled for recycling.
The groups say the effort will support the move to a circular economy in the European Union. To date, one of the biggest challenges to become circular has been finding a way to accurately identify packaging, which would promote more efficient and higher-quality recycling.
Various innovative approaches were explored within the scope of the New Plastics Economy program of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with digital watermarks found to be the most promising technology. They gained the support of the majority of stakeholders and passed a basic proof of concept on a test sorting line.
Postage stamp-sized watermarks on packaging, which are not visible to the naked eye, make it possible to effectively sort the material into specific waste streams. Conventional sensor technologies are not able to reliably identify multimaterial packaging, so these can end up as contaminants when recycling monomaterials.
With digital watermarks, it becomes possible to separate materials more accurately and generate new waste streams, which then can be recycled with enhanced recycling technologies.
The technology can provide a significant improvement in sorted bale quality for recyclers. In addition to the main polymer, it should ultimately be possible to specify exactly what is in the bale other than the main polymer type, such as levels of additives, other materials, inks and other details.
The digital watermarks also open other opportunities. For example, consumers can use a smartphone app to find details about the packaging and how to recycle it, and brand owners can add product details as well.
The branded goods industry has now stepped in to facilitate the next phase as a cross-value chain initiative under the name HolyGrail 2.0, which will take place on a much greater scale and scope.
This will include the launch of an industrial pilot in order to prove the viability of digital watermarks technologies.