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PepsiCo pilots invisible digital watermark technology to boost recycling

September 17, 2020
Food & Drink

PepsiCo is trialling products encoded with invisible digital watermarks for more effective recycling. The technology is pegged as the “holy grail” that will make mechanical sorting more efficient.

The beverage giant and other packaging stakeholders are evaluating how to industrialize this solution for a more streamlined waste stream in the EU. They note that watermarks can be used in consumer engagement, supply chain visibility and retail operations.

“This technology has the potential to make life simpler for consumers because they will not have to separate their packaging and worry about which plastic polymer is which. Instead, through this trial, our product packaging will be encoded with these invisible digital watermarks, which contain information about the manufacturer, product, material type and whether the packaging is food safe,” Gareth Callan, PepsiCo’s Holy Grail Project Lead, tells PackagingInsights.

“When scanned by a high resolution camera on a waste sorting line, this information helps to sort the packaging into the right stream – meaning more high quality material can be recycled, more efficiently.”

The project “HolyGrail 2.0” is steered by PepsiCo together with more than 85 companies and organizations, led by the European Brands Association (AIM). The consortium aims to launch an industrial pilot to prove the viability of digital watermarks technologies.

“We will not know the potential scale-up of the project until we’ve actually trialed it at industrial scale,” Callan details. “That’s why this phase of the project is really important to evaluate the entire technology and to understand if there is a business case for further investment. That’s not just from PepsiCo but also all the other members of the consortium who are critical to making this a success. To have an impact, this needs collective action.”

PepsiCo’s overarching hope is that this technology will help us separate materials that are food safe from those that are not. “The standards for those tests need to be defined, but an example might be meeting aspects of the recycling food safety standards set out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),” says Callan.

A reimagined plastics economy
Digital watermarks are pegged by PepsiCo as having the potential to “revolutionize” the way packaging is sorted in the waste management system, opening new possibilities that are currently not feasible with existing technologies.

This discovery was made under the New Plastics Economy program of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which investigated different innovations to improve post-consumer recycling. Digital watermarks were found to be the most promising technology, gathering support among the majority of stakeholders and passing a basic proof of concept on a test sorting line.

“The three key ingredients here are innovation, sustainability and digital, combined to achieve the objective of the Green Deal towards a clean, circular and climate neutral economy,” outlines Michelle Gibbons, Director General at AIM.

“It is terrific to see such enthusiasm from across the industry and to be able to unite such expertise from the complete packaging value chain, from brand owners and retailers to converters, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, waste management systems, recyclers and many more. Collaboration is the way forward to achieve the EU’s circular economy goals.”

The challenges of implementation
Implementing digital watermarking is a difficult task. “It is new coding technology which will need to be readable under a whole range of conditions and cross referenced instantaneously with a database to identify its material composition,” Callan highlights.

“I think it is becoming clear that to solve challenges on waste, we need pre-competitive collaboration such as this and that means you are working with a vast number of players from across multiple different industries. It takes time to align.”

PepsiCo pre-competitively works with other industry stakeholders to further this ambition. Notable projects include the creation of guidelines through CEFLEX to aid the design of flexible packaging for recyclability.

In other moves, the beverage giant has invested in the Pulpex consortium to develop and scale the world’s first widely recyclable paper bottle. It has also provided support to Carbios to build enhanced recycling technology which will reduce the amount of plastic that becomes waste.

“While we are aiming to begin using the watermark on some packaging during 2021, we will decide in the coming months which brands and markets that will apply to,” Callan comments.

“We are working to make 100 percent of our packaging recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025 and to include 50 percent recycled content in all our beverage bottles across the EU by 2030.”

By: Benjamin Ferrer

Source: Food Ingredients First

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