What makes a sustainability leader? Meet circular economy innovators, P&G

With less than a month until the 2021 Sustainability Leaders Awards, this feature series showcases the achievements of the 2020 winners and reveals their secrets to success. Up next: The winners of the Circular Economy Innovation of the Year, Procter & Gamble.

Giraffe Innovation’s Rob Holdway and compere Julia Bradbury (right) present P&G with the award

Giraffe Innovation’s Rob Holdway and compere Julia Bradbury (right) present P&G with the award

As part of its own five-pillar plastics packaging strategy and its involvement in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, Procter & Gamble (P&G) is working to develop a system to place digital watermarks on packaging, so they can be identified by stakeholders, including consumers and waste management firms.

The idea is these watermarks can be read by consumers, enabling them to sort their waste and minimise contamination, and by recycling infrastructure, leading to more efficient sorting and higher-value feedstocks. P&G claims a lack of consumer participation in waste segregation and alack of harmonised collection and processing systems are two of the biggest challenges to boosting plastics recycling rates across developed nations in the EU and the Americas.

In developing the so-called HolyGrail project, P&G worked with 29 actors across the plastics packaging value chain, including manufacturers, waste managers and academics. The businesses worked together for more than a year to prove the sorting concept. Once this success had been announced, it secured the backing of more than 50 organisations to launch HolyGrail 2.0 – the second phase of the project, bringing it to the mass market for the first time.

P&G claims by choosing digital watermarks over other tracers, such as NFC or RFID chips, it has enabled a wider array of information to be collected and conveyed. As such, it can help waste managers distinguish food and non-food packs, identify black pigments which go undetected in traditional infrastructure, separate shrink wrap sleeves and identify multi-layer packaging. To date, digital watermarks have been successfully integrated to printed materials like labels and sleeves, and directly into moulds forpackaging formats without printed components.

Tests of the HolyGrail innovation, in which a digital watermark scanner was added to a traditional sorting machine, saw more than 95% of packaging samples correctly identified and separated. As progress on HolyGrail 2.0 continues, P&G is hoping to scale up trials and achieve even higher rates of success, before opening a full-scale industrial line. Looking to the near future, P&G will be running a series of “open house” events, whereby organisations already engaged in HolyGrail and those keen to contribute will be invited to view live demonstrations, access additional information and connect to spur progress. The firm says it is acutely aware that “no single company” can upscale HolyGrail on its own and, to that end, is working to encourage those across the consumer goods space to implement the labelling, and help waste managers install the scanning technology. HolyGrail is, crucially, non-competitive.

The firm attributes much of the project’s progress to teams working together internally. As well as R&D, the project involved staff from the sales, marketing, sustainability, marketing and communications teams. P&G is notably aiming to engage all of its employees with its Ambition 2030 sustainability strategy, helping all functions to recognise where they can make the most meaningful contributions to progress.

Beyond plastics recycling, P&G believes digital watermarking could bring about a multitude ofadditional benefits. “Smart” packaging could, for example, be used to help boost quality checks; make inventory management more efficient; improve the reliability of anti-counterfeit checks and make checking out in store faster. Further research and testing will be needed for these applications, but the concept will doubtless prove attractive to businesses across the packaging value chain.

What edie’s judges said: “Using novel enabling technologies, HolyGrail 2.0 will significantly increase recycling yiel and quality. This project demonstrates the importance of collaborative innovation and co-creation.”


Are you our next winner?

Now entering their 14th year for 2021, the RSA-accredited Sustainability Leaders Awards are a unique opportunity to shout about the achievements you and your company have made during this challenging year. 

Entries have now closed for the award scheme and our shortlist of finalists has been released. In a digital event on Wednesday 3 February 2021, entrants will get the chance to celebrate virtually with leaders from across the sustainability, CSR and energy space. Some exciting new categories have been added for 2021 to recognise excellence across the spectrum of sustainable business. 

--- REGISTER TO ATTEND THE 2021 SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS AWARDS HERE ---


edie Staff



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