crushed empty yogurt containers
Photo courtesy of AIM

HolyGrail 2.0 semi-industrial trial demonstrates effectiveness of digital watermarks

The technology had an average detection rate of 99 percent.

Digimarc Corp., Beaverton, Oregon, and AIM – European Brands Association, Brussels, have announced that the Digital Watermarks Initiative HolyGrail 2.0 has completed a semi-industrial trial demonstrating an average detection rate of 99 percent, while ejection and purity rates were 95 percent, on average. The organizations say the results demonstrate that Digimarc’s technology performs well across all tested categories of plastic packaging in conditions representing routine industrial operations, even at higher belt speed and when the packaging has severe soiling and crushing.

Digital watermarks are imperceptible codes that are the size of a postage stamp and carry a wide range of attributes about the consumer goods packaging that they are placed on. The aim is that once the packaging has entered a material recovery facility, the digital watermark can be detected and decoded using a high-resolution camera on the sorting line, which, based on the transferred attributes that could include whether the packaging was used for food or not, sorts the packaging in corresponding streams.

“These results emphatically prove that Digimarc digital watermarks can transform recycling,” says Digimarc CEO Riley McCormack. “What’s more, Digimarc Recycle, powered by Digimarc digital watermarks, provides the industry additional business value in addition to this core, critical enablement of a circular economy. With the exceptional performance of Digimarc digital watermarks now validated, we are excited to partner with sustainability leaders to drive meaningful impact to the planet, as well as their businesses.”

The results show that the digital watermark technology can achieve more granular sorting of end-of-life packaging at scale, such as developing separate food and other new postconsumer streams that do not exist, such as for cosmetic or detergent applications, effectively overcoming limitations of near-infrared sorting technologies. The organizations say the technology can help to drive a true circular economy for packaging.

Developed by the machine vendor Pellenc ST and the digital watermarks technology supplier Digimarc, the detection unit is now ready for industrial-scale pilots, which are planned to start later this year, according to a news release issued by AIM. Details on industrial partners and packaging scope will be released soon.

“We have achieved our objective of proving digital watermarks can increase intelligent sorting of packaging waste at scale, enabling new recycling streams that currently do not exist. This would be a fantastic leap forward in achieving the EU recycling goals,” says Michelle Gibbons, director general of AIM. “Innovation and digital are the core drivers towards the Green Transition, and this has been brought to life through HolyGrail 2.0. The engagement across the value chain by dedicated experts and teams to get to this point has been remarkable; now, market participants can decide to be part of industrial-scale pilots, to test this at an even bigger scale in Europe.”

Jacob Duer, president and CEO of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which provided funding for the project, says, “The HolyGrail project is an excellent example of how engaged and committed businesses coming together around a very clear goal can accelerate the development of new solutions. As we move into the next stage of in-market demonstrations, we strongly encourage more businesses and partners to join us in scaling up testing and adoption.”

The semi-industrial tests of the Pellenc ST/Digimarc prototype started in October 2021 at the Amager Resource Center in Copenhagen. The purpose was to evaluate the technology by replicating real-world industrial conditions. Comprehensive sets of tests were performed on approximately 125,000 pieces of packaging from 260 stock-keeping units, or SKUs, at a belt speed of 3 meters per second, or nearly 10 feet, with soiling/crushing and throughput representing routine industrial operations. Additional tests also were performed at a higher belt speed of 4.5 meters per second, or nearly 15 feet per seconds, with severe soiling and crushing, without loss of performance.