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Holy Grail 2.0: Digital watermarks for intelligent sorting

Source:International Plastics News for     Date:2021-10-29
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The technology to improve sorting and recycling of plastic waste has taken a major leap forward with the adoption of digital watermarks as viable solution. Even with the size of a postage stamp, digital watermarks can carry a host of information on the different attributes of a plastic packaging such as packaging type, material and usage. Printed or embossed on the plastic packaging, these digital watermarks are not visible to the human eye but can be detected high resolution cameras.


Starting at Copenhagen’s Amager Resource Centre in Denmark, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) has partnered with the European Brands Association (AIM) for the HolyGrail 2.0 project, to trial newly developed sorting units at semi-industrial scale with the objective of assessing the technical and economic viability of digital watermarks and their positive impact on increasing the recycling of plastic packaging. As the AEPW stated, the HolyGrail 2.0 project will be tested first on semi-industrial and, at a later stage, industrial scale. This involves installing new prototype machines, equipped with high resolution cameras to detect and decode the information carried by the digital watermarks in sorting and recycling centres.



The team will be looking at three things: speed of 3m/s, indicating how fast the detection unit will be scanning waste on the conveyor belt; level of accuracy where each piece of waste must be accurately identified by its material makeup and use; detection efficiency where: once identified, waste is sorted into the various categories, producing a high-quality feedstock for further recycling. The information displayed by the watermark helps to efficiently and correctly sort different kinds of plastic packaging and distinguish between food and non-food packaging.


Going for intelligent sorting 

Plastic packaging helps keep food fresh longer, reducing the risk of food wastage. However, too often, it is disposed after a short first use, although plastic is a long-lasting, valuable material.  Plastic packaging often serves multiple purposes—be it cosmetic or functional—and this sometimes means using a mix of different plastics or even other materials like aluminium. The problem is that this multi-material packaging often cannot be recycled in existing recycling systems. Only 9 percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled, and only 10 percent of this proportion have been recycled more than once.


There is currently a growing market demand for more and higher-quality recyclates, and this trend is expected to persist.  Branded consumer goods manufacturers in the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector and retailers seek solutions that help turn their sustainability efforts into reality. This includes ways to reduce or even avoid plastic waste by fostering a circular plastic economy.  Today, about 60 percent of the top 100 FMCG brands already aim for a significantly higher degree of recycled plastic in their packaging, and even try to move towards full recyclability of the packaging they use. This is only possible with more intelligent ways to sort the plastic packaging at recycling centres to enable high-quality recycling outcomes.



To improve the quantity and quality of plastic packaging recycling, new identification and sorting technologies are required. As this intelligent sorting increases the purity of the recycling feedstock, the plastic waste can then enter different recycling streams—such as mechanical or chemical recycling. This ultimately results in greater amounts of recycled plastic waste and improves the overall quality of recyclates.


This is where digital watermarks come in. Either printed or embossed on a plastic packaging, any camera—from the ones on the smartphones to those installed at special sorting units at a recycling centre—can detect the marks and inform the sorting process. In future, digital watermarks could help consumers better sort their waste at home—providing all the information they need at their fingertips.


Driven by AIM and powered by the AEPW, over 130 companies and organisations from the complete packaging value chain have joined forces for the HolyGrail 2.0 with the goal to assess whether a pioneering digital technology can enable better sorting and higher-quality recycling rates for packaging in the EU, driving a truly circular economy.


The partnership has resulted in the drive for the next stage of development for intelligent waste sorting as they work with the City of Copenhagen to conduct the semi-industrial test phase of the pilot. With this milestone, developers move one step closer to precision identification and sorting of plastic packaging waste through digital watermarks, with the potential to revolutionise the sorting and recycling process of plastic packaging.  Over the next four months, a prototype sorting detection unit will be installed at the Amager Resource Centre (ARC) in Copenhagen, where the trials and demonstrations with around 125.000 pieces of packaging representing up to 260 different stock-keeping units (SKUs) will be held. Engineers will test for several parameters including the speed and accuracy of the system, to ensure its ability to withstand the pressures of full-scale industrial operations. 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. 


Major milestone achieved 

Moving forward, the semi-industrial trials to commence in the next phase of the EU Digital Watermarks Initiative has the participation of Digimarc Corporation (Digimarc), which has been selected digital watermarks technology provider, Digimarc is working with the two machine vendors, Pellenc ST and Tomra, to develop add-on modules for their detection sorting units. Testing is scheduled to take place via trials in two test locations in October 2021. Demonstrations of the prototype sorting detection unit will happen at Amager Resource Centre (ARC) in Copenhagen on October 19 and November 18, 2021.   


Some major players have also embarked on initiatives to push the HolyGrail 2.0 forward. Mondi, a founding member of the original Pioneer Project HolyGrail, facilitated by the Ellen MacArthur foundation along with 85 partners across the value chain, continuing its active role in trialling the innovative technology.  As HolyGrail 2.0 progresses, Mondi is well positioned to contribute to its success by validating digital watermarks with partners along the value chain. Mondi will be conducting full-scale industrial trials with key customers in the near future. 


Another industry player, P&G announced that it will support the test market industrial trials with more than 100 of its products in Europe. These items carry a digital watermark and as such will provide the opportunity to demonstrate that digital watermarks have potential to be leveraged to improve waste sorting and to achieve a more efficient recycling.  Over the past three years, P&G and its coalition partners have invested expertise and resources in the Holy Grail project to devise a more consistent and scalable tagging system across all packages. Traditionally, each company has used its own unique markings to identify the recycling potential of packaging. This system caused delays in recycling progress and confusion on how best to reinvent waste. Project HolyGrail sought to solve this problem by paving the way for “intelligent sorting” at recycling facilities. 


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