Is HolyGrail 2.0 really the circular economy’s ‘holy grail’?

© Digimarc Corporation

Against the backdrop of increasing environmental regulations and stricter recycling quotas, packaging manufacturers, and in particular the plastics industry, are coming under pressure. This is because far too many recyclable materials are still being lost in the recycling process. The HolyGrail 2.0 initiative wants to change this by using digital marker technology. More and more companies are joining the initiative. But does it really solve the problem? We took a look at where the opportunities lie, what the rollout looks like and why HolyGrail is a good way to separate waste better, but not a solution to the cause.


It’s already cast in EU law: By 2030, only plastic packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable may be put on the market. At the same time, up to 30 per cent of recyclable materials are currently lost in Germany due to improper disposal and sorting – and this in a market that is comparatively well positioned in terms of collection and recycling infrastructure. (The figure refers to total waste. Individual material fractions perform significantly better or worse than this average. The basic problem, however, remains).

The HolyGrail 2.0 initiative is certainly useful here. It will noticeably improve output and quality in the recycling process through the use of digital watermarks. However, it does not change the fundamental challenge of reducing the amount of packaging and the material used overall.


HolyGrail 2.0

Holy Grail 2.0 – Digital Watermarks (HG 2.0) is an initiative of the European Brands Association (AIM), driven by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Over 130 companies and organisations from across the packaging value chain have already joined HG 2.0.

The aim of the initiative is to advance intelligent packaging sorting and material recycling at European level. The basis for this is invisible, machine-readable markings on the packaging. The UV markers or Digimarc watermarks provide information on the composition and quality of the material and thus enable more efficient and effective sorting and further processing of the collected packaging. The markers are read by high-resolution cameras with powerful LED lights.


Opportunities for recycling through HG 2.0

  • Improved sorting has the potential to optimally reuse 1,500 to 3,500 kt of additional packaging material annually in Europe and, for example, to process it into high-quality recyclate.
  • Assuming that a package weighs 40 grams on average, 1,500 kt would correspond to 37.5 billion packages that could be additionally recycled per year.


The HolyGrail 2.0 rollout

The rollout will take place in three phases.

  • Phase I: The digital watermark will be put into practice by mid-2021. Machine manufacturers Tomra and Pellenc will create two market-ready prototype machines that meet the real-world requirements of a rollout along the entire value chain.
  • Phase II: A feasibility analysis of digital watermark technology will be conducted from July to December 2021. Samples will be produced and launched in collaboration with brands, retailers and converters. Testing will take place in Lahnstein (D) and Copenhagen (DK).
  • Phase III: From the beginning of 2022, a large-scale test will take place under real conditions at multi-use facilities, producer responsibility organisations and recyclers in Germany and France. For this purpose, extensive market samples will be presented and the production and recycling industries will be fully prepared for the introduction of the digital watermark.


Game, set, but no victory yet

Clearly, HolyGrail 2.0 is real progress. The initiative

  • improves the sorting quality and thus increases the purity of the sorting fractions,
  • thereby increasing the value of the respective sorting fraction
  • and thus improves the recyclability or yield in the subsequent process stages.

On the plus side, therefore, there is a quantitatively and qualitatively better result in recycling.

However, HG 2.0 does not change the problem that too much packaging and too much packaging material is used. The initiative therefore addresses the result rather than providing a solution to the underlying problem.

Even if the HolyGrail system catches on, we are still many years away from a comprehensive European solution.

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