Watermarks can harmonize sorting processes amid regulation squeeze: Petcore Conference 2019 review, Part 2

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11 Feb 2019 --- One of the key findings at the Petcore Europe Conference, held in Brussels last week, was that in order to achieve the stringent recycling targets set out in the EU Plastics Strategy, the industry must collaborate more efficiently to develop harmonized, efficient sorting processes. Since most recycling problems can be brought back to the sorting process, cracking sorting will crack recycling, according to Gian De Belder, Packaging Technologist, Sustainable Packaging Development at Procter & Gamble (P&G). One potential breakthrough technology that could add efficiency and precision to the sorting process is watermarking.

Petcore’s Conference, “EU Plastics Strategy 2.0. Taking the PET industry to the next step,” centered around what the future of PET will look like amid wide-reaching regulatory and societal change. Expert speakers at the event put forward an array of innovative solutions to reach the higher recycling targets that have been put in place by the EU Plastics Strategy, as well as enhance the sorting and recycling process to encourage higher quality feedstock.

Part one of PackagingInsights’ coverage of the event outlined five key system conditions underpinning the industry that are driving change, as described by Clarissa Morawski of Reloop. These conditions stem from targets that have been set in the EU Plastics Strategy and the Single Use Plastics Directive (SUDP). They are ultimately changing the system conditions under which businesses operate, especially those that buy and sell packaging.

Amid such conditions, leading companies are innovating to provide solutions that will allow the industry, which is under mounting regulatory and economic pressure, to reach the stringent targets that they are being held accountable to.

Click to EnlargeA standard laundry shelf in a Belgium supermarket shows how many bottles with full body sleeves are on offer. Credit: Gian e Belder.DP&G innovates in recycling ODR products
A big step forward in increasing the recyclability of Opaque and Difficult to Recycle (ODR) Household and Personal Care (HPC) PET bottles was announced for the first time at the Petcore Conference by De Belder of P&G.

Bottles in this market category with perforated sleeves which allow consumers to tear off the sleeve and dispose of it at home have received conditional European PET Bottle Platform (EPBP) approval. This means that the regulatory body will endorse the full body sleeve design for a period of three years. This is a significant solution to the growing ODR market, according to De Belder. 

Opaque white and black PET bottles and trays, including sleeved versions, present sorting issues as typical infrared sorting lines do not readily identify them. The “way forward,” according to De Belder, is to use full-body sleeves with micro-perforations. At the conference, De Belder announced that Conditional approval has been given by EPBP (European PET Bottle Platform) was given for the Household and Personal Care industry, and others might follow.

“Sleeved bottles are a good solution for heavily colored opaque bottles. But, there are challenges with proper detection. Depending on the country, some are sending them to the colored streams or into incineration and landfill. The sorting machines cannot always detect the sleeve or the bottle underneath the sleeve. So, how can we combat this challenge?” asks De Belder.

The EPBP endorsement comes with some conditions. These include that the double perforated floatable sleeves must be easy to identify and to remove for consumers, a harmonized message towards the consumer on how the sleeve must be removed and placed in a collection bin or bag should be communicated and the PET bottle under the sleeve must be transparent or light Click to EnlargeP&G trialed this Lenor bottle with the perforated technology. Credit: Gian e Belder. Dblue.

Updating the sorting process using intelligent and connected packaging
A second lecture by De Belder focused on streamlining the sorting and recycling process. As it stands, within the EU, there is a lack of harmonized systems which makes it hard for global brand owners to design and market their products. Developing a product on a country-by-country basis is difficult. “A lot of recycling challenges can be brought back to sorting. If we can crack the sorting, then many recycling challenges will be cracked too. As brand owners, we want access to high-quality streams of recycled content, but we need to crack the weakness of the process,” he says.

Through its project coined “HolyGrail,” P&G is leading a full value chain investigating how current sorting lines can be improved through modules that can simply be “added onto” existing lines. One example is using watermarks which have been developed by partner companies Digimarc and FiliGrade. Watermarks can replace both QR codes and barcodes and be scanned by cash registers, consumer smartphones and, in this case, automated sorting machines to improve the sorting and recycling process.

Current models mainly use infrared systems to identify the different plastic in sorting streams. However, such systems are unable to identify (at high efficiencies) opaque plastics and full body sleeved products, for example.

“Big retailers such as Wegmans in the US use watermarks commercially in their private label brands. Also, Waltmart is looking into what this technology can offer to them. Ultimately, if everyone uses this technology then it could become free for recycling purposes,” explains De Belder.Click to EnlargeHow a sorting line could look using the Digimarc watermark. Credit: Gian De Belder. The watermarks offer more than just sorting benefits. They act as barcodes, can hold consumer engagement capabilities and work for anti-counterfeiting purposes.

P&G are now running final proof of concept trials for project HolyGrail in March and April and plan to go live afterMay with an industrial trial. The aim is for the (funded) project to start with a test market will likely be the Netherlands, France or Belgium.

Such technology can help the industry achieve better quality feedstock, which is imperative for an industry that has been set high targets in terms of recycled content levels. Although it differs per member state, as a rule of thumb, the goal is to reach 25 percent recycled plastic by 2025 and 30 percent by 2030. It could also increase the number of used products that are recycled efficiently and not sent for incineration or landfill, which is a substantial benefit as the industry is also facing much higher recycling targets.

The rate at which the plastic packaging industry has undergone vast regulatory change is unusual, but perhaps necessary, according to Laure Baillargeon of DG Grow. As marine litter was found to consist overwhelmingly of plastics, the EU Plastics Strategy and the SUPD have been put in place to produce tangible results, as well as appease societal and political pressure. The Petcore Europe Conference evidenced that the industry is innovating to reach said targets while stabilizing the future of PET.

By Laxmi Haigh

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