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HolyGrail is a pre-competitive co-operation project for the entire value chain involving, among others, member companies such as Borealis, P&G and BASF. The aim is to develop ‘smart’ packaging to make sorting and recycling systems more accurate. High-quality sorting is an essential step if current recycling percentages are to be vastly increased and to ensure that better recycled materials are fed back into the packaging stream.

Digital watermarks

The project has delivered a simple proof of concept for digital watermarks. This will provide new possibilities that cannot be achieved at present with current sorting technologies, such as specifically sorting out packaging for food applications, correctly identifying bottles with shrink-wrap film over the entire bottle, and sorting out opaque or black packaging.

Results

Over the course of the project, the partners have made substantial progress on digital watermarks. For example, ‘invisible codes’ have been incorporated into both printed materials (labels, wraps, in-mould labels, film/pouches) and directly in a die (PET bottles, HDPE bottles, thermoformed trays, injection-moulded boxes, etc.).

This makes the packaging intelligent, a function that can then be beneficial throughout the whole value chain: quality assurance and stock management for fillers; counterfeiting checks in shops; fast checkouts at retailers (in which two-dimensional bar codes and QR codes become superfluous); the consumer experience; and finally better sorting and recovery processes. Only then it is possible to become truly circular.

In short, HolyGrail has proven that the technology of digital watermarks can radically change the way in which the industry approaches sorting. This new approach improves efficiency and will lead to large quantities of high-quality recycled materials (including food-grade PCR values).

On 26 September 2019, the project won the ‘Driving the Circular Economy’ award and ‘Best Sustainable Packaging Innovation’ from Packaging Europe. These awards, founded by Packaging Europe, encourage serious consideration of the requirements of complex environmental challenges, stimulating cross-fertilisation of ideas and promoting the best sustainable innovation.