Digital watermarks being tested for recycling packages

The Circular Plastic Taskforce (CPT) and Digimarc Corporation are working together to test Digimarc Recycle for optimizing the sortation of flexible plastic packaging in Canada.

This project is a first in North America, and marks the start of Phase II of the CPT, which aims to carry out or support projects to improve the recycling of all plastic packaging within the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) landscape in Quebec and Canada.

Digital watermarks are applied within the package artwork with no special inks or print process required. They are visible to specialized sorting equipment, but imperceptible to consumers. The watermarks, when scanned by machine cameras, connect to a cloud-based database that holds characteristics of the package, such as the manufacturer and specific product, prior use (food versus non-food), additives, or the presence of components that are problematic for recycling. The database can hold unlimited attributes.

The results from the CPT’s Phase I study show that even if flexible plastic packaging represents a significant portion of plastic packaging used in Quebec and Canada, recovery rates remain low. One of the reasons is that today’s sortation equipment cannot distinguish between mono-material recyclable packaging and multi-material structures, therefore lowering bale quality.

“We are excited to bring Digimarc Recycle to North America and to help the Circular Plastic Taskforce achieve their circularity-driven objectives,” said Emily Stolarcyk, sustainability program director for business development at Digimarc.

“Digimarc’s digital watermarks, a key component of Digimarc Recycle, have proven to correctly identify each unique package. Connecting watermarks to an extensible database of product and packaging attributes ensures we can help enable a more circular economy now and in the future. This will benefit facilities and brands in meeting their recycling goals, in both the increase of volume and the purity of recycled material.”

The first part of the project will test the ability of specialized optical sorters to adequately capture flexible packaging with digital watermarks in a controlled environment. This test will be performed at the Pellenc ST R&D Center in Pertuis, France, with various flexible packaging samples manufactured by Balcan Innovations, TC Transcontinental (co-founder of the CPT,) and Winpak.

Following the results of this test, the second part of the project, which should begin in 2023, will aim at testing this solution in a real-life environment and at a much larger scale, with the goal of producing film bales meeting the high-quality specifications of recyclers. To do so, specialized sorting equipment will be installed in sorting centres and recyclers in Quebec and Ontario to capture flexible packaging with digital watermarking put on the market by our retail and brand partners.

The project also seeks to confirm the effectiveness of Digimarc Recycle to provide traceability of packaging. Traceability is a prerequisite to produce food-grade recycled resin and will be key to complying with coming
regulations to accelerate the transition to a circular economy for plastics.

The CPT’s objective is to promote the implementation of a circular economy for post-consumer plastics in Quebec and Canada. The CPT steering committee includes Cascades, Danone Canada, Dyne-apak, Keurig Dr Pepper Canada, TC Transcontinental, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC) and Éco Entreprises Québec (ÉEQ).