Digital watermark pioneer Digimarc has joined hands with the Canada-based Circular Plastics Taskforce on a project aimed at improving the automated sorting of recyclable plastic waste at recycling facilities in Canada. The project will see the application of Digimarc’s proprietary digital watermark technology, in which each piece of packaging is marked with an identifying ‘bar code’ carrying information about that particular product.
These digital watermarks are embedded in the package artwork, with no special inks or print process required, and are visible to specialised sorting equipment but imperceptible to consumers. The watermarks, when scanned by machine cameras, connect to a cloud-based database containing information about the packaging such as the manufacturer and specific product, prior use (food versus non-food), additives or the presence of components that are problematic for recycling. Previous testing has shown that the system is a robust one: even at high belt speeds and severe soiling and crushing, the watermarks have been found to maintain performance.
“Connecting watermarks to an extensible database of product and packaging attributes ensures we can help enable a more circular economy now and in the future. This will benefit facilities and brands in meeting their recycling goals, in both the increase of volume and the purity of recycled material,” explained Emily Stolarcyk, Sustainability Program Director for Business Development at Digimarc Corporation.
The project is part of the Circular Plastic Taskforce’s phase II study. The CPT, launched in 2020, is a collaborative effort involving consumer product companies, packaging producers and an industry association that aims to help build a circular economy for post-consumer plastics in Canada. The participants came up with an ambitiously formulated initiative, structured into three phases, the first of which was concluded last year. That first phase consisted of mapping out the plastics recycling value chain in Quebec to identify the main issues, propose innovative solutions and carry out simulation tests intended to validate their potential. In Phase II, these solutions will be trialled in pilot projects at sorting centres with recyclers. Once the model has been tested, the initiative can be further rolled out across Canada in Phase III of the project.
According to the Circular Plastics Taskforce Steering Committee, the Phase I results showed that while flexible plastic packaging represents a significant portion of plastic packaging used in Quebec and Canada, the recovery rates for this type of packaging remain low.
“One of the reasons is that today's sortation equipment cannot distinguish between mono-material recyclable packaging and multi-material structures, therefore lowering bale quality. We believe Digimarc Recycle can help solve this challenge,” said a Taskforce spokesperson.
The first part of the project consists of testing the ability of specialised optical sorters to capture flexible packaging with digital watermarks in a controlled environment. This test will be performed at the Pellenc R&D Center in Pertuis, France, with various flexible packaging samples manufactured by Balcan Innovations, TC Transcontinental (co-founder of the CPT,) and Winpak Ltd. Following the results of this initial test, the second part of the project, which should begin in 2023, will aim at piloting this solution in a real-life environment and at a much larger scale, with the goal of producing film bales meeting the high-quality specifications of recyclers. To do so, specialised sorting equipment will be installed in sorting centres and recyclers in Quebec and Ontario.
The project also seeks to confirm the effectiveness of Digimarc Recycle to provide traceability of packaging. Traceability is a prerequisite for producing food-grade recycled resin and will be key to complying with upcoming regulations that will be implemented to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastics.