Co-op employs Polytag’s innovative recycling technology for unprecedented traceability of its spring water bottles
Recycling technology innovator, Polytag, is set to apply both unique-every-time QR codes and UV tags to Co-op own-label PET 2-litre spring water bottles in an industry-first, offering the convenience retailer unprecedented visibility of its packaging during the recycling process.
The unique-every-time QR codes will be applied to the pack labels by Co-op’s bottled water supplier at the standard label application speeds, meaning no loss to production efficiency. The QR codes are GS1 compliant and take consumers to a Co-op landing page detailing information about both the retailer’s sustainability and charitable commitments. Within the unique-every-time QR code there is a serial number which can be used to handle fraud-proof rewards, assign loyalty points and secure deposit redemptions.
A UV tag layer invisible to the human eye, printed by Tipografic using UV flexographic inks, is also then applied across the label. This UV tag layer enables barcode level information to be captured in the recycling centre and is uploaded to Polytag’s intuitive, cloud-based analytics dashboard, providing the retailer with real-time insights on whether packaging is actually recycled, and in what volumes.
The UV tag reading technology was developed by Polytag in partnership with researchers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre. It is fitted to the plastics conveyer at Abergele’s Gofer Bulking Centre in Wales.
Both the visible QR codes and ‘hidden’ UV tags pave the way for a cost-effective, Digital Deposit Return Scheme (DDRS). In future, scanning the unique QR code on used product packaging, has the potential to allow consumers to reclaim their deposit via their smartphones, from home. The printing of UV tags provides key supply chain stakeholders – manufacturers, retailers and recycling authorities – access to unique packaging lifecycle data, including where and when it was produced and the percentage of recycled material it contains, protecting against fraud. For this trial, the QR codes will be used as a communication tool, transporting customers to the landing page when scanned.
Furthermore, with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on the horizon, brands classed as obligated packaging producers maybe required to benchmark their progress. Both on-pack QR codes and UV tags will provide brands with the data to easily ‘describe, tag and trace’ their plastic packaging through the circular economy, while also streamlining packaging and recycling operations.
At the same time, the technology will allow legislators to measure business liabilities and enforce legislation by identifying ownership of plastic packaging: Local authorities and recycling centres can capture real-time data on packaging composition and breakdown of bales, to help inform recycling strategy, investment in sorting and recovery equipment, and onward tracking of materials.
Rob Thompson, Packaging Manager at Co-op, said: “At Co-op we champion initiatives that enable a circular recycling economy for all packaging materials. The duality of the UV tag and QR code on our water bottles will enable Co-op to gain a greater understanding on a product’s journey in the recycling chain and provide valuable insight to shape guidance and measurement for future initiatives to encourage more people to recycle.”
Alice Rackley, CEO of Polytag said: “The combination of consumer facing QR codes and UV tags is the future of creating and maintaining a circular economy from the millions of pieces of packaging that enter the market every year. The onus is now firmly on the industry to take responsibility for the packaging they produce.
“Polytag is a necessary enabler for FMCG brands committed to circularity. It is a data, sustainability and marketing platform in one, already delivering world-firsts in partnership with major brands, such as Co-op who are reaping the rewards of greater visibility of their packaging. We encourage other brands and retailers to get in touch to see for themselves.”
A Welsh government spokesperson helping to facilitate the trial said: “The Welsh government has long supported Polytag’s innovative technology and shares its belief that its digital technologies are the key to unlocking the UK’s recycling potential.
“Following the UK’s first DDRS pilot in Conwy, Polytag is once again proving that the implementation of a digital solution is not only feasible, but scalable. We are hopeful that its latest partnership with one of the UK’s biggest retailers will continue to ensure a DDRS is part of the conversation in the lead up to 2025.”
 Often referred to as ‘the polluter pays’ tax, EPR puts the onus on manufacturers and producers to consider the whole lifecycle of a product, including packaging durability and whether it can be recycled