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HolyGrail for circular economy – digital watermark initiative by the AIM


HolyGrail for circular economy – digital watermark initiative by the AIM

The Digital Watermarks Initiative HolyGrail 2.0 is a R&D project bringing together over 130 companies and associations from across the packaging value chain. Driven by AIM - European Brands Association and powered by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the objective of the consortium is assessing 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 beauty and potential of digital watermarks is that they are imperceptible optical codes, the size of a postage stamp, applied directly within the packaging’s label artwork or embossed in the mould. They can carry a wide range of attributes such as manufacturer, Stock-Keeping Unit (SKU), type of plastics used and composition, food vs. non-food usage. As well as encoding a “digital recycling passport”, digital watermarks also have the potential to be used in other areas such as consumer engagement, supply chain visibility and retail operations.

HolyGrail 2.0 focuses on how digital watermarks can be used for improved sorting processes of post-consumer packaging waste. The aim is that once the packaging coded with digital watermarks has entered into a waste sorting facility, the digital watermark can be detected and decoded by a high resolution camera on the sorting line, which then – based on the transferred attributes – is able to sort the packaging in corresponding streams (e.g. food vs. non-food). This would result in better and more accurate sorting streams and consequently in higher-quality recyclates benefiting the complete packaging value chain.

After successful validation of the proof-of-concept (Phase I) and of the HG2.0 system in semi-industrial setting (Phase II, results available here and here), the project is now in its current third and last R&D phase, where the HG2.0 functional prototype will be deployed in commercial sorting and recycling facilities under normal operating conditions.

This so-called Phase III will be performed over different packaging types and materials:

  • Tests on non-food PET bottles have been successfully concluded in March 2024
  • Tests on flexible packaging have been performed between November 2023 and February 2024, with results to be shared soon.
  • Last but not least, tests on rigid post-consumer packaging enhanced with digital watermarks will be conducted throughout Summer 2024 over a three-month testing.

In preparation of this last testing phase, brand owners and retailers have brought their enhanced products commercially to the market in Denmark and Germany. Consumers will buy these on-shelf products with digitally watermarked packaging, which after consumption will enter the waste stream and end up for sorting in different material recovery facilities that will run the industrial trials for different packaging material: rigid PP, rigid PE, non-food PET bottles, PET trays, LCB’s and paper cups. These real-time test runs are to determine the systems reliability to ensure optimum sorting performance.

A successful completion of the industrial tests would bring the technology to TRL 9 – actual system proven in operational environment.

For more information, please visit https://www.digitalwatermarks.eu/ and reach out to digitalwatermarks@aim.be.

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