Officially launched in June 2020, R-cycle is a cross-company initiative aiming to ensure the recyclability of plastic packaging through a seamless documentation of all recycling-relevant packaging properties. These packaging properties are recorded during production and stored on a common data platform – providing the data needed to improve the sorting process at the end of the life cycle.
Since kicking off in 2020, the R-Cycle initiative - an initiative of the four plastics machinery manufacturers Arburg, Brückner Maschinenbau, Kautex Maschinenbau, and Reifenhäuser as well as the Institute for Plastics Processing at RWTH Aachen University - has made huge strides. Developed to provide an open and globally applicable traceability standard for an automated data transfer process, R-Cycle currently has over 20 members and progressed to a stage in which it is being tested and verified in various pilot projects, with raw material producers, packaging manufacturers, brand owners, wholesalers and retailers.
One of these pilots, entitled "Smart digital watermark packaging in Blow Molding", has been launched by Kautex Maschinenbau, in collaboration with the Brazil-based raw material manufacturer Braskem, German plastic packaging manufacturer KautexTextron and Dutch recycling specialist Morssinkhoff Plastics. It is Kautex’ second R-Cycle pilot project, and with it, the company aims to make a further contribution to the realization of a functional circular economy through the development of an R-Cycle solution for as many consumer packaging application areas as possible.
Within the scope of the project, various different containers - 250ml beverage bottles, 1 litre cans for solid detergents, 3 litre bottles with handles for household chemicals and 20 litre canisters for chemicals- were produced by extrusion blow moulding; all had a single-layer wall made of PE. The bottle caps were also made of polyethylene or polypropylene. To improve the recyclability of the packaging.
During production, all recycling-relevant information, including the manufacturer, the types of plastic used, the proportion of recycled and biobased material, and details of the packaging's application in the food or non-food sector was collected in the form of a digital product passport by the Kautex blow moulding machine running at the relevant customer’s plant. Each container bore a marking, such as a QR code or a digital watermark, to identify and read this information in further processes - up to the waste sorting system.
The data was stored on the R-Cycle server in the GS1 Global Tracing Standard - the traceability technology behind R-Cycle. As a result, all data becomes immediately available along the entire value chain.
A GS1 standard is a system that connects a product with all its vital data, enabling trackability and electronic information sharing. The GS1 system is the leading global network for cross-industry process development.
In this particular Kautex pilot project, the digital product passport took the form of a digital watermark - invisible codes, at least to the human eye that extend over the entire surface of the packaging label - linked to the data in the R-Cycle database, enabling identification by waste sorting systems with the appropriate recognition technologies. The result is data-based and more precise waste sorting and purer fractions, which, in turn, yield higher-quality recyclates.
Manufacturers and processors of plastic packaging also benefit from data-optimized production processes in terms of process efficiency, quality and compliance with legal information requirements. The codes can be read on any smartphone using the Digimarc app, for example.
The role of Kautex Maschinenbau was the development of the ‘R-Connector’ - a data acquisition system that acts as an interface between the extrusion blow moulding production system and the cloud-based R-Cycle platform. By integrating the R-Connector into the machine control systems supplied by Kautex Maschinenbau, the relevant production data is collected, analysed, and uploaded directly to the R-Cycle server, significantly increasing production efficiency and transparency.
Unlike in present-day waste sorting processes, which cannot distinguish reliably between recyclable and non-recyclable packaging, this technology allows waste sorting facilities to identify fully recyclable packaging by using standard detection technologies. Pure fractions within the recycling process that supply detailed information on their exact composition are the key to obtaining high-quality recyclate for true recycling. With this open and globally applicable traceability standard, that is finally possible.