Major firms join forces to assess digital watermarks for improved recycling

Working with the European Brands Association (AIM), over 85 companies and organisations from the complete packaging value chain – including Procter & Gamble, ALPLA, Unilever, L’Oreal, Beiersdorf, and Henkel - have joined forces to assess whether a pioneering digital technology can enable better sorting and improved recycling rates for packaging in the EU, to drive a circular economy.

According to AIM, one of the most pressing challenges in achieving a circular economy for packaging is to better sort post-consumer waste by accurately identifying packaging, resulting in more efficient and higher-quality recycling.

The organisation said digital watermarks may have the potential to revolutionise the way packaging is sorted in the waste management system, as it opens new possibilities that are “not currently feasible” with exiting technologies.

The discovery was made under the New Plastics Economy programme by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which explored different innovation to improve post-consumer recycling. Digital watermarks were found to be the most promising technology, according to AIM, gathering support among the majority of stakeholders and passing a basic proof of concept on a test sorting line.

Digital watermarks are “imperceptible codes”, according to AIM, the size of a postage stamp, covering the surface of a consumer goods item’s packaging. The watermarks can carry a range of attributes such as manufacturer, SKU, type of plastics used, and composition for multilayer objects, food vs non-food usage, and more.

The aim of introducing digital watermarks is that once the packaging has entered into a waste sorting facility, the digital watermark can be detected and decoded by a standard high-resolution camera on the sorting line which then, based on the transferred attributes, is able to sort the packaging into corresponding streams.

The branded goods industry has now stepped in to facilitate the next phase as cross-value chain initiative under the name ‘HolyGrail 2.0’, which will take place on a greater scale and scope. This will include the launch of an industrial pilot to improve the viability of digital watermark technologies.

Michelle Gibbons, director general at AIM, said: “The three key ingredients here are innovation, sustainability, and digital, combined to achieve the objective of the Green Deal towards a clean, circular and climate neutral economy.

“It is terrific to see such enthusiasm from across the industry and to be able to unite such expertise from the complete packaging value chain, from brand owners and retailers to converters, EPR schemes, waste management schemes, recyclers and many more.

“Collaboration is the way forward to achieve the EU’s circular economy goals.”

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