P&G Searches for the HolyGrail of Plastic Recycling

HolyGrail of Plastic Recycling

In the past few years, companies have started to wake up to the challenge plastic poses to the environment. The material lingers for decades or more before slowly degrading. However, plastic is cheap and light, making it an ideal choice for packaging.

Some of the world’s largest consumer goods businesses—also some of the most significant plastic users—have joined forces to tackle this problem. Led by Procter and Gamble (P&G), the HolyGrail 2.0 project aims to increase plastic recycling rates by adding invisible digital watermarks to product packaging.

What Is the HolyGrail 2.0 Project?

The problem of plastic waste is not something that any single company can tackle on its own. Instead, it takes a coordinated effort between businesses to develop industry-wide standards for improving processes. In 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation founded the initial HolyGrail project, which focused on exploring methods and technologies that could help the situation.

HolyGrail culminated in 2019, but the project was continued under HolyGrail 2.0 with a specific aim of developing digital watermarks for plastic packaging. AIM, the European Brands Association, facilitates the coalition of more than 85 companies.

As one of the largest members, P&G has taken the lead in experimenting with and trialing digital watermarks. These invisible markings on a product’s packaging contain data that can encourage more efficient sorting at recycling plants, with a higher proportion of plastics recycled.

How Do Digital Watermarks Work?

In most cases, you wouldn’t know if there was a digital watermark on a product when you pick it up in the store. To the human eye, the packaging looks as it has always done. However, the outside is covered in repetitions of an almost-invisible 2D barcode.

The goal is that, when scanned, the recycling facility is offered information like whether it is a food or non-food container, the type of materials used, and whether there are difficult to recycle components like black packaging.

The barcode is replicated across the packaging to enable automated scanning. With the addition of high-resolution digital cameras, the facility could automatically sort plastic products based on the data contained in the code.

Not only is this more efficient, but it also facilitates more accurate sorting. As a result, more waste plastic will be recycled and returned to the supply chain.

A Step In the Right Direction

The digital watermarking developed under the HolyGrail projects may improve plastic recycling rates. This prevents unnecessary waste from incorrect sorting or issues identifying the plastics used in the packaging. This is a good thing, of course, but it should also be viewed as part of a target to reduce our collective reliance on plastic.

Ultimately, plastic producers also need to reduce the amount of plastic they use in their products. There also need to be societal changes to reduce our consumption of single-use plastic. However, we should be encouraged that HolyGrail 2.0 proves that systemic change is possible when businesses work together towards a common goal.

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