Could bar codes or other digital passports with recycling information printed or embedded in plastics packaging improve its environmental performance by making it easier to identify and sort waste for recycling?
The R-Cycle project, an industry technical coalition, thinks it could - and it wants to give the broader plastics sector its first look at its work at K 2022.
R-Cycle, which has 26 member companies, worked with the nonprofit standard setting body GS1 - which oversees the globally ubiquitous point-of-sale bar code on products - to develop a digital traceability standard for plastic packaging.
They're showing their efforts at a joint booth (OA 16, CE07) in the Circular Economy Forum outside of Hall 16.
At an Oct. 18 press conference a day before the show opened, R-Cycle Director Benedikt Brenken said the coalition is unveiling details of the effort to the bigger K show audience.
The work is in its early stages, but he said there's a lot of interest in such technology from big consumer product brands, governments and the waste management sector.
"We see a big push from brands and from retailers to get this information," Brenken said, adding that governments also have a "clear understanding" of the need for such technology, which R-Cycle refers to as a digital passport.
The idea is simple: put information in a digital watermark or other code on packaging, containing details like the type of plastic, does it have recycled or bio-based content, is it approved for food packaging use and how was the packaging used.
Then, waste sorting facilities would have to put cameras or sensors in their facility to detect and direct material, based on the codes.
Because those waste facilities would be required to make their own investments to use the digital passports, they see both opportunities and potential, he said.
"On the one hand they see the potential to provide better sorting, to provide a better product," Brenken said. "On the other hand, they have to think about their business case. This is where the entire value chain has to work together."
Brenken said the R-Cycle coalition sees such data as essential to boost plastics recycling: "The circular economy is quite complex but without data, you cannot have a circular economy."
The technology is designed to be an open platform that will work with any production machinery. The markings can come in different formats, including bar codes, QR codes and digital watermarks, although watermarks may have more functionality during sorting.
By the end of the year, R-Cycle's work will be published as a standard by GS1 and be available free to those interested in adopting it or studying it, Brenken said in an interview after the press conference.
R-Cycle member companies include processing equipment makers Reifenhäuser Extrusion Systems GmbH, Engel Austria GmbH, Brückner Maschinenbau, recycling machinery supplier Erema Group, and materials firms Dow Inc. and ExxonMobil Chemical.
The initial planning on R-Cycle began in 2019, and Brenken said its members took note when the European Commission's Circular Economy Action Plan in early 2020 highlighted the importance of digitising information on products to help recycling and sustainability.
"We read this Circular Economy Action plans and there was the first time the European Commission said digital product passport and digitalisation of value chains," Brenken said. "We said, you know, with our idea, we're really hitting a target."
The digital watermarks can work hand-in-hand with new policies and investments designed to boost sustainability, he said.
"We're in a phase of chicken-and-egg," Brenken said. "On the one hand, you need the investment in better recycling technology. But on the other hand, for waste management, they're competing against new material."
"Even if we do better sorting, a virgin material will always be better - the problem is when it's also cheaper," he said. "Therefore, that's why we need more framework conditions and policy signs. ... You need to level the market."