A new partnership between the City of Copenhagen and the two driving forces behind the digital watermarks initiative HolyGrail 2.0 - the European Brands Association, and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste - has been announced. The partnership will see the commencement of semi-industrial trials for the intelligent waste sorting technology developed within the scope of the Holy Grail 2.0 project. Launched in September 2020, the initiative is now entering its second year. The pioneering HolyGrail 1.0 was facilitated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation between 2016 and 2019.
The technology, based on the digital watermarks developed by US-based Digimarc Corporation, enables the precision identification and sorting of plastic packaging collected for recycling, which ultimately will yield higher quality recyclates to be channelled back into the plastic packaging value chain.
The watermarks themselves are imperceptible postage-stamp-sized codes, that cover the surface of a consumer goods packaging and that carry a wide range of attributes such as packaging type, material and usage. Used packaging is collected and scanned on the sorting line with a high-resolution camera which detects and decodes the digital watermark. The packaging is then sorted into corresponding streams, based on specified attributes including food, non-food or polymer types.
These initial trials will be conducted in Copenhagen. “The City of Copenhagen has a political ambition to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. High-quality plastic recycling that substitutes new production and reduces incineration is a key instrument to reach this goal. HolyGrail 2.0 has the potential to achieve this and we look forward to doing our part in the testing of the technology”, said Merete Kristoffersen, Head of Division, Waste and Resources, City of Copenhagen.
Over the next four months, a prototype sorting detection unit will be installed at the Amager Resource Centre (ARC) in the city, where the trials and demonstrations with around 125,000 pieces of packaging representing up to 260 different stock-keeping units (SKUs) will be held. Among other things, the speed and accuracy of the system will be tested to ensure its ability to withstand the pressures of full-scale industrial operations.
“We are delighted to enter the next phase of semi-industrial testing within the Digital Watermarks Initiative together with our new partner, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste”, said Michelle Gibbons, AIM Director General. “Collaboration is the way forward to achieve the EU's circular economy goals and we are confident that this technology has the potential to drive a truly circular economy for packaging.”
“As testing continues, we know there will be many things to solve along the way, but with strong collaboration of our public and private sector partners, we believe intelligent sorting can be a new frontier that could help dramatically improve plastic waste management,” added Jacob Duer, President and CEO of the Alliance.
If successful, digitally watermarked products could be introduced to store shelves in Denmark, France and Germany by the first half of 2022 for in-market demonstrations and industrial-scale trials. To that end, the two machine vendors, Pellenc ST and Tomra, are working with Digimarc, to develop add-on modules for their detection sorting units, to be combined with existing NIR (near infra-red) sorters.
Both modules will be tested during the semi-industrial phase via trials at two different test locations. The first controlled tests using industrial-sized equipment and the Pellenc ST/Digimarc module are scheduled for October 2021 at the ARC sorting centre.
Pending successful completion of the semi-industrial trials, the first products with digitally watermarked packaging will then be brought to market in Denmark, France and Germany. Used packaging will enter the waste stream after consumption. The sorting units will be placed at 5 different locations in France and Germany, including materials recovery facilities (MRFs), plastic recovery facilities and recycling plants. This last phase is scheduled to run until Q3 2022, when a techno-economic analysis of the use of digital watermark technology for sorting packaging waste will be issued in the form of a public report.