Today, when you recycle a plastic container, it goes to a material recovery facility, where it must be identified and sorted.
Facilities typically rely on imprecise older technology to try to figure out materials in a particular piece of waste. Workers standing next to conveyor belts as packages whiz by can catch others.
But by embedding a microscopic change in a pattern of pixels—called an invisible bar code—on the label, software can instantly identify the package so it can be sorted and recycled correctly.
Several of the world’s largest brands, including PepsiCo, Nestle, and P&G, have spent the last two years collaborating with Digimarc, the company that developed the technology.
Working with recyclers, retailers, and recycling machine manufacturers to test the system, the project aims to target one of the reasons that many plastic packages end up in landfills.
“Obviously, there isn’t one silver bullet solution to the plastic issue,” says Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which initially brought the companies together when the project began.
“We need to start by eliminating the plastic we don’t need. We need a lot of innovation shifting from single-use to reuse business models. But recycling is still one part of the problem, and [brands] realize that to make recycling work, we need to improve the way plastic waste is sorted in sorting centers.”
By sorting more accurately, the final bales of material are more valuable, and the total amount of material that can be recycled increases.
The system can identify whether a bottle was used for food or something like shampoo—a crucial step that current systems can’t accomplish but is necessary for food companies that want to buy recycled plastic to reuse in new packaging, as European regulations prohibit them from using recycled plastic that was originally for something other than food.