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New partnership aims to precisely identify and sort plastic packaging waste through digital watermarks

Over the next four months, a prototype sorting detection unit will be installed at the Amager Resource Centre (ARC) in Copenhagen.

AIM, the European Brands Association and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste have entered a partnership to drive the next stage of development for intelligent waste sorting under the Digital Watermarks Initiative HolyGrail 2.0. They will 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 revolutionize 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.

Digital watermarks are imperceptible codes, each the size of a postage stamp. They cover the surface of a consumer goods packaging and 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. This leads to more accurate sorting streams and higher quality recyclates to be channelled back into the plastic packaging value chain.

This milestone marks the second year of the HolyGrail 2.0 project. Since its launch in September 2020, it has grown to include over 130 participating companies and organisations across the complete packaging value chain. The pioneering HolyGrail 1.0 was facilitated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation between 2016 and 2019.