Under the auspices of AIM, the European Brands Association, over 85 companies and organisations have joined forces with the aim of proving the viability of digital watermarking for sorting waste at scale. The project has the ambitious goal of assessing whether this pioneering digital technology can enable better sorting and higher-quality recycling rates for packaging in the EU, to drive a truly circular economy. To date, one of the biggest challenges 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 programme of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with digital watermarks found to be the most promising technology, having gained the support of the majority of stakeholders and passing 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 (e.g. near infrared spectroscopy) are not able to reliably identify multi-material packaging, so these can end up as contaminants when recycling mono-materials. With this new technology, 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 etc.
These digital watermarks also open up 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 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 for more accurate sorting of packaging and higher-quality recycling, as well.