In this article, we take a look at P&G’s pioneering efforts to increase the efficiency of waste recycling through the HolyGrail project and how P&G is leading the way in the area of sustainability through innovation hubs such as its Brussels-based InQbet Campus.

Recycling isn’t as simple as people think

We’ve come a long way with synthetic plastics. The first completely synthetic plastic (Bakelite) was invented by the Belgian entrepreneur and chemist, Leo Baekeland, in 1907. Since then, synthetic plastics have risen in popularity. During WWII in the war effort, it was used in everything from military aircraft, to accessories such as ropes and gear. Post-war, it remained in vogue. People were won over by the way plastics improved their lifestyles: plastic bottles, plastic furniture and costume jewellery were all introduced to the consumer.

This new, cheaper material arguably contributed to the emergence of a Throw-Away culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The popularity of disposable paper dresses and car owners buying a new model car every two years epitomised this zeitgeist.

Now, many years on, we’ve been disillusioned. We now know that throwing something away isn’t getting rid of it, it’s only moving it from one place (your home or immediate environment) to another (like incinerators, landfills, or in the worst case, into nature).

Starting in the late 1980s and the 1990s, consumers started noticing how plastics and waste were piling up. At the time, many recycling initiatives were launched: campaigns were set in motion to make consumers more aware of recycling, and recycling facilities sprung up.

Photo by pepe ceron-balsas on Unsplash

There was one big problem, however. It’s not as easy to recycle waste as people wanted to believe.

There are hundreds and thousands of different plastic grades (although these can be grouped into a smaller number of types of plastics like PET, PE, PP, PS, to name a few). Sometimes, plastics are even mixed into one product: although a PET bottle with a PP cap is not problematic, a plastic mix – for example, laminating PP onto PET – poses a lot of problems and makes it complex and very expensive to sort. There is also a cost involved in collecting and melting plastic down for re-use. Finally, there’s the issue of creating value out of recycled plastic.

Although waste and plastics recycling has come a long way and helps us significantly lower CO2 emissions, according to Plastics Recyclers Europe’s 25-year report, only about “30% of plastics are collected for recycling” and there are still some missing links in the waste and plastics recycling value chain.

There are five pillars that need to be in place (across industries) for packaging recycling to become truly circular. The first of these is product design: products should be designed in such a way that it would make recycling or circularity easier. Next, as the second pillar, collection systems should be in place and accessible. The third pillar is that consumers need to be on board and participate in recycling initiatives, while the fourth pillar comprises technological advancements and innovations in recycling. Finally, pillar five is having markets in place that accept and make use of secondary raw resources.

A lot of progress has been made on getting these pillars in place. For example, P&G’s Brussels Innovation Centre (BIC) recently redesigned several Fabric and Home Care products’ packaging to make it circular (FE shrink sleeved packs and SUD pouches), thus addressing pillar one. Moreover, products’ packaging such as Ariel (50% rHDPE) and Fairy/Dreft dishwash (100%rPET) are now made from post-consumer resin (PCR), as opposed to virgin plastics, thus preventing thousands of metric tons of waste from ending up in landfills or incinerators and simultaneously stimulating market demand for recycled resin (and as such, addressing pillar five concerns). However, making packaging truly circular requires industry-wide change, and is thus not something that just one agent can bring about.

P&G’s Vision: on a quest for the HolyGrail of waste recycling

That is why the HolyGrail project – addressing pillar four – is so significant. It is a collective/pan-industry effort to find the technology and systems that lead us further along the path to a circular economy.

Under the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy and led by Gian de Belder, Technical Director of R&D Packaging Sustainability at Procter & Gamble, key industry players were brought together to solve the problem of sorting plastic packaging waste.

Improving the automatic sorting of materials and plastics in materials recycling facilities (MRFs) or in plastic recovery facilities (PRFs) was becoming crucial, because of two reasons: There was a clear discrepancy between how well sorting machines (NIR/VIS sorter) sorted waste on an R&D test-site level and an industrial level. When sorting was tested with identical batches of waste, fluctuating results were observed on these two levels. There was no clear and overall industry approach to streamlining innovation on automatic sorting. To give the reader an idea, in 2014 a staggering 30 R&D programmes were running: all of them focussed on tracer-based sorting and none of them prioritised multi-stakeholder industry engagement.

What was needed, was to solve the automatic sorting challenge through a concerted effort by industry players across the full value chain. DeBelder writes of the challenge that he… “wanted to make it clear that there was a need to first talk as a full industry to define the ‘barcode of recycling’ that could be used by everyone, not suffering from incompatibilities and avoiding fragmentation, complexity and high costs and ensuring broad implementation.”

This sets the HolyGrail apart as a remarkable project. As De Belder says, the companies invited were not used to working together (since they are competitors): but they knew they needed to collaborate to solve the technological and complex problem of correctly identifying and sorting something like packaging.

It’s critical that we convince the whole industry that we all need to do something Gian de Belder.

In 2016, De Belder called all the key companies together for a consortium/public workshop. Around 90 people – including representatives from the waste industry – attended the event that was held with the express intent of having an open discussion about the technological possibilities of waste sorting.

It was at this fateful conference that De Belder invited a vendor to speak about the idea of implementing digital watermarks. At the time, those present did not yet understand what the potential benefits could be, and therefore no one had been exploring the idea of using digital watermarks for improved sorting.

Later that same year, the idea that De Belder had pitched had graduated into a fully-fledged “Pioneer project,” namely a pre-competitive collaboration project. By 2018-2019, the first “Proof-of-Concept” watermark-based detection add-on module was developed. Ninety-five per cent of the members of the pioneer HolyGrail project agreed that digital watermarks (as opposed to tracer-based systems that are typically fluorescent-based) offer much more value. Find the full close-out report here.

“Project HolyGrail is all about making packaging intelligent by use of a digital watermark,” states De Belder. This, in turn, radically improves automatic sorting. Where can this digital watermark be found? Often in the packaging artwork. Carefully disguised in the images printed on the packaging, some pixels have been slightly modified in the original high-resolution file. Alternatively, plastic products are embossed with watermarks. These modifications are imperceptible to consumers but can be picked up by high-speed cameras or digital scanners during the sorting process.

screenshot taken from video titled Dansk Retursystem – To the end of life on Youtube.

These watermarks are linked to a cloud-based database and encode a large array of attributes. Waste manufacturers, for example, can access this database for easier sorting: it could allow them to carry out product-specific sorting and they can easily add certain products (those that are designed according to DfR [Design for Recyclability] principles), reject others (contaminants in a stream, like HDPE Silicone Do-It-Yourself cartridges) and also to divide streams (for example, into food/non-food or even further, into detergent/cosmetic grades).

Image provided by P&G: Examples of 2D watermarks included in the packaging artwork.
Image shows P&G’s Unstoppable mold – in this instance, the watermark is 3D and is created during the molding process.

In May 2019, the HolyGrail 1.0. project was concluded by demonstrating the success of a basic proof-of-concept on the test sorting line. In a series of open houses at Tomra’s R&D facility, multiple stakeholders got to see the technology in action.

By making the packs more intelligent through digital watermarks, an add-on module linked to existing sorting equipment can read these ‘barcodes’ for recycling and can do a more effective job – Gian de Belder.

Recently, project HolyGrail has entered its succeeding phase, namely HolyGrail 2.0. This phase of the project consists of putting the technology into practice at a larger scale. That is to say moving from Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 5 to TRL 9, where TRL 5 is that the HolyGrail 1.0 technology has been validated in the industrially relevant environment, and TRL 9 is when the whole system has been proven to work in an operational environment. In addition, the HolyGrail 2.0 project entails running industrial test markets in Denmark, Germany and France, and assessing the economic viability of digital watermark technologies.

So it was that last year (2021), under the aegis of AIM (European Brands Association) and powered by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, the HolyGrail project was tested in Copenhagen for the first time.

As one of the leading members of this project, P&G committed to experimenting and implementing the watermarks. They support the project by providing “the test market industrial trials with more than 100 of [their] products in Europe.” These products are all carrying the new digital watermarks and help determine whether it is technically and economically feasible to recycle products with the use of the watermarks.

This industrial pilot project proved to be a success. The first-ever detection add-on module (installed onto an existing NIR/VIS – near-infrared/video/optical – sorter), combined with the watermarks implemented on the packaging, reached a very high detection (> 97%) and ejection rate (95%). This was phase one of HolyGrail 2.0.

During phase two in November 2021, a semi-industrial test demonstration was held at Amager Resource Centre (ARC) in Copenhagen. A mix between physical and virtual Open Houses drew approximately 700 attendees who got to see this revolutionary technology in practice.

Today, a few months later, HolyGrail labels or digital watermarks are already being implemented at a wider scale, paving the way for the future. At the completion of the HolyGrail 2.0. project, sorting and recycling centres will be able to adopt the technology: making it easier for sorting facilities to sort materials according to these digital watermarks that indicate the different chemical signatures of the packaging. In fact, some of the first encoded products are already on the market (as early as 2020). Procter & Gamble currently watermarks Unstoppables, Lenor bottles, SUD (Single Unit Dose laundry pouches), and Blend-a-Med.

The InQbet campus’s work on plastic recycling

Waste recycling – as mentioned above – is an ongoing challenge. While digital watermarks will help one aspect of recycling (i.e. the technological aspect of sorting), recycling has many other facets.

There is also the processing of plastics in order to be re-used and the fact that high-quality recycled plastics are in most cases more expensive than virgin plastics. Designing products for easier recyclability is another aspect: if cross-industry guidelines could be agreed on and followed, sorting and processing would become much more economic and hassle-free. Finally, industry players need to adopt PCR materials (in lieu of virgin petroleum-based plastics), in order to stimulate market demand for recycled plastics over that of virgin plastics.

There is thus still a lot to be done. And as is demonstrated by the HolyGrail 2.0 project, real change only happens when parties collaborate.

This is why Procter & Gamble follows the same principle when it comes to innovation. At the P&G InQbet campus in Brussels, P&G collaborates with startups, scale-ups, spin-offs and universities. Collaborations are fostered through an ecosystem approach: each entity in this innovation ecosystem complementing the others.

At P&G, we’re working diligently to reduce the [virgin petroleum-based] plastic in our packaging [….]. But we cannot solve this complex challenge alone – the plastics crisis must be addressed with a coordinated global response. – Virginie Helias

Together, they are solving some of the biggest problems that stand in the way of a truly circular economy.

Some of the startups that are working on solving problems surrounding plastics and plastics recycling include Clewat (marine plastic removal), Recycl3r (digital solutions to encourage recycling), Impact Recycling (post-consumer plastics recycling), Cryptocycle (green blockchain), CO2 BioClean (turning CO2 into biodegradable polymers), Catalisti and BlueChem (sustainable plastics and chemistry innovation), Wastetrade (marketplace for recycled goods), Banyan Nation (vertically integrated plastic recycling company) and Avecom (biopolymers).

With such a group of experts coming together on the P&G InQbet campus, P&G in Brussels is becoming a veritable hub for sustainable innovation ideas in different areas.

Sustainability pitch events at the InQbet campus

In addition, P&G’s InQbet campus has hosted a series of Quickfire Pitches on sustainability, the latest of these having taken place on the 16th of February 2022. At each pitch, ten startups/scale-ups pitch their ideas to P&G in a bid to fast-track innovation on achieving a circular economy.

This quarter, P&G’s InQbet campus will also be hosting the Sustainability and Manufacturing section of the next Big Score matchmaking event (31st of March). At this event, corporates and early-stage startups come together to exchange ideas and feedback.

If you’re a spinoff, startup or scale-up that wants to join P&G in its trailblazing efforts to make a circular economy a reality, take a look at the InQbet campus and its corporate accelerator programme here and here.