SPRITE: leveraging novel technology can increase recycling rates

Joshua Young, Circular Economy Lead at PragmatIC Semiconductor, shares his thoughts on how novel technologies can be used to help increase recycling rates and reviews the outcomes of a recent digital recycling project in the UK. 

The shocking results of the Big Plastic Count which took place in May 2022 reveal that the UK’s homes produce 96.6 billion pieces of plastic packaging waste a year, with only 12% being recycled in the UK.

The rest is exported to other countries to deal with (17%), buried in landfill (25%) or burnt in incinerators (45%). So, understandably, there is increasing pressure on brands to address the issue of single-use plastic packaging, as well as on the government to set more stringent plastic reduction goals and to implement more effective recycling and waste management programmes. 

In order to improve packaging return schemes, it is crucial that novel digital technologies are leveraged. One example of a recent initiative is the UK government-funded SPRITE (Sustainable Plastics Recycling Innovation by Tagging Electronically) project which was led by PragmatIC Semiconductor.

Challenges to be faced

Deposit Return Schemes (DRSs) are a proven way of increasing the return of packaging, with many looking to Germany having achieved 96% return rates from consumers. However, it is important to remember that the system was first introduced 20 years ago, and it took considerable time and infrastructure investment to fully establish.

This infrastructure was costly and complex, with return points being large, expensive to install, and requiring regular maintenance. These barriers can prevent smaller retailers from being able to take part in such schemes, limiting their reach.

The concept behind the SPRITE project was to underpin a traditional DRS with new digital technologies.

The concept behind the SPRITE project was to underpin a traditional DRS with new digital technologies to help remove the barriers both for consumers and retailers, by enabling easy returns and developing widely accessible low-cost return points. To accelerate the wide-spread adoption of a new DRS it has become clear that new data-driven solutions must be used, and a standardised approach taken.

It should also be simple and convenient for consumers to engage with, as well as financially viable for the brands, packaging companies, waste collection, and recycling organisations to support at scale.

Novel digital technologies in action

The SPRITE project used novel ultra-low-cost flexible electronics and NFC (near field communication) technologies. Working with key industry partners and a major UK supermarket, pilots operated in multiple physical stores over a period of several months. A low-cost NFC inlay (tag) was embedded into each product package with a unique identifier (UID) enabling item-level digital traceability. At the point of sale, consumers decided whether to participate in this trial. 

Promotional material was available in-store to create awareness and drive participation. Consumers could purchase products with a small deposit and return empty packaging via an NFC-enabled smart bin. The deposit was then reimbursed to a digital wallet/mobile app on their smartphones by validating the item’s unique ID to a cloud platform. 

The SPRITE project used novel ultra-low-cost flexible electronics and NFC (near field communication) technologies.

The addition of NFC to packaging not only provided traceability to the retailer for each individual item of packaging, but also facilitated easier and faster returns for the consumer than traditional reverse-vending technologies. Consumers responded positively to the initiative, and the ease of use drove repeat participation.

Going forward

Globally more countries are deploying Deposit Return Schemes, and this is never a quick or easy process. The SPRITE project demonstrated the potential for accelerating implementation, while working alongside existing collection and recycling systems.

Some brands and retailers are sensitive to adding NFC to their packaging for fear that it increases cost, carbon footprint or impacts recyclability.

However, PragmatIC has proven that our technology can be <1% of CO2eq of the footprint of packaging and that inlays (tags) can be effectively separated within the mechanical recycling process.

The improvement in capture and recycling of plastic enabled by this approach far outweighs the impact of adding the technology. And for brands there is incredible value in the data that implementation of this technology provides, with item-level digital tracking of the plastic packaging throughout its lifecycle. 

Beyond recycling

Although increasing recycling rates is an important step for improving our environment, recycling alone will not be enough to solve the challenges around plastic pollution. We are starting to see a gradual transition to a circular economy, encompassing both recycling and reuse solutions. There are huge challenges with this transition, including getting buy-in from consumers and brands as well as implementing the required infrastructure. 

To aid this transition, the technology developed during the SPRITE project is now being applied to develop a universal return system covering both single-use and reusable packaging. One thing is clear – circular systems must be easy to use and implement. Digital technologies will therefore play a crucial role in this space as the scale and ambition of sustainability goals increase.

To find out more about how novel digital technologies, flexible electronics and NFC can help to enable innovative sustainability solutions please go to www.pragmaticsemi.com.

If you’ve got something to say about this opinion or would like to submit your own for consideration, email the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk.

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