Sorting Technology Advances Recycling Efforts

Sorting Technology Advances Recycling Efforts

The goal in the plastics industry is clear: The con­sumption of fossil raw materials must be reduced to the bare minimum. But how can our linear material flows be transformed into an efficient circular economy? The digital product passport provides the basis for this: information along the entire value chain for data-based manufacturing and recycling processes.

Plastic is unbeaten in its performance and versatility. There is almost no area of life in which it is not used. As safe packaging for food, hygiene products, or medical devices and medicines, it is irreplaceable for the world’s increasingly urbanized living spaces. However, one fundamental problem that has hardly been solved so far is recycling.

Disposable plastic products such as packaging are increasingly the focus of sustainability discussions. Even though a large proportion of packaging in supermarkets is now fully recyclable, this does not mean it is recycled. Only about 6% of plastics from household waste find their way into new products of equal or higher value as so-called post-consumer recycled content. The largest share of more than 65% is thermally recycled—for example, incinerated for energy generation—with a corresponding carbon diox­ide impact on the climate, according to a 2017 study.

Solving the Problem

To solve this problem, we need to look at today’s waste streams. Fully recyclable packaging is not separated precisely enough. But that’s exactly what is needed to recycle plastic to a high standard. Our household waste is a complex waste stream made up of a wide variety of products, but today it is still not possible to separate it by type of plastic and ingredi­ents, and use of packaging such as food, medicines, or chem­icals. The result is an inferior mixture of different plastics that can only be used to a limited extent in recycling, if only because of the different melting temperatures. There is a lack of information to sort waste into appropriate fractions and thus turn it into a valuable raw material for new products.

This is exactly the information that R-Cycle provides, and the best thing is that it is already available. During manufacturing, production and filling machines as well as enterprise resource planning systems record, write, and analyze all conceivable information relating to a product.

All that needs to be done is to aggregate the relevant data and transport it further along the value chain. The vehicle for this is the so-called digital product passport. R-Cycle thus creates the basis for a highly developed recycling process by automatically recording recycling-relevant properties in an open standard format during the manufacture of plastic products. These are made retrievable through corresponding markings such as digital water­marks or QR codes on preliminary and final products.

Digital watermarks are codes invisible to the human eye that are distributed over the entire surface of a plastic package and can be read by industrial camera systems or smartphones. Using this additional information, industrial waste sorting systems can identify recyclable packaging in seconds and form recyclable and single-variety fractions.

The combination of fully recyclable packaging and life cycle data from the digital product passport for accu­rate waste management is key to obtaining high-quality recyclates to create a true material cycle within the same or equivalent application.

R-Cycle has been developed to market by several technology companies and organizations along the entire life cycle of plastic packaging. Currently, the cross-industry community has over 25 partners. R-Cycle can be networked with any system or production line, from film or injection molding machines to converting, printing, filling, waste sorting, and recycling equipment.

Global Standards for Open Data Exchange

The traceability technology behind R-Cycle is based on GS1 standards, the leading global network for cross-industry process development and a founding member of R-Cycle. GS1 standards are used for more than 6 billion scanned barcodes every day. The underlying technology—the so-called EPCIS standard—is already being used successfully in various industries worldwide.

Under the umbrella of GS1 Germany, the PDS4CircularPlastics project—a processes and data-sharing approach for enabling circular plastics value networks—was launched in early 2022. The goal is to develop a GS1 application guideline that describes the recycling-relevant process steps in plastics production and presents the necessary attributes for data transfer along the value chain.

The project is based on the findings of the R-Cycle Initiative for automated storage of recycling-relevant data in digital product passports and forms the starting point for circular processes and their operationalization.

Efficient Production

In addition to effectively improving product sustainability, manufacturers and processors of plastic packaging benefit in terms of process efficiency, quality, and compliance with statutory information requirements. As a rule, several companies are involved in the production of plastic packaging and other products. Systems and machines networked with the R-Cycle data platform can obtain precise informa­tion on the respective upstream products from the digital product passport and supplement their own data accord­ingly, which represents added value for customers in the downstream process.

Based on the data from the digital product passport, slitting, winding, packaging, or filling lines, for example, can automatically configure themselves to the specific properties of the input materials to be processed. This increases efficiency in the production process and product quality while reducing production waste. In this way, R-Cycle makes production processes more efficient, faster, and more sustainable.

Another use case where the digital product passport can deliver added value is in the fulfillment of (emerging) legal information requirements such as in the calculation of the carbon footprint or the area of extended producer responsibility. In this way, time-consuming manual calculations can be automated to meet requirements from legislators or customers.

Finally, R-Cycle uses the potential of digitalization for sustainable material cycles as is also politically demanded within the framework of the Circular Economy Action Plan of the European Union. The digital product passport makes all information from the value chain transparent and usable for all process participants. This increases sus­tainability and efficiency in the procurement of informa­tion and in the production process.

Benedikt Brenken, Ph.D., is director of R-Cycle. He can be reached at