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QR code tech drives digital retailer recycling returns

By Retail Technology | Friday November 10 2023 | UPDATED 10.11.23

Ocado, Co-op and other retailers and brands use QR code-enabled data platform to provide digital deposit returns that incentivise consumers to recycle

The results of a digitally-enabled milk bottle scanning and recycling trial by online grocer, Ocado, have been hailed a success after a nationwide nine-week trial.

Customers from 3,000 households scanned 20,000 milk bottles as they discarded them in their geolocated recycling bin, earning up to £4,000 in rewards at 20 pence per bottle.

The scheme integrated with Bower, a rewards recycling app, which customers used to scan single-use QR codes developed by tech provider, Polytag, printed onto two and four-pint milk bottles.

It has also partnered with the Co-op to apply its codes to its own-label spring water bottles.

Enabling circularity

Alice Rackley, Polytag chief executive, explained how the rewards drive interest but that the tech was designed to provide circular visibility into more sustainable packaging practices.

“True collaboration is enabling circularity,” Rackley told Retail Technology magazine. “The trial was a coordinated effort from standards bodies, label printers, the retailer and their milk supplier.”

Polytag is a partner of the product code standards body, GS1. Every one of its unique QR codes scanned on packaging at the point of recycling triggers a digital deposit return.

Ultimately, Rackley suggested the traceability of QR codes can deliver the assurances that brands and retailers need to support any proposed government-mandated digital deposit return (DDR) schemes.

They also offer an alternative to reverse vending machines (RVMs), which retailers must buy, manage and maintain. But the customer engagement opportunities are another benefit.

Marketing opportunities

The unique codes can also link to bespoke landing pages. “So, codes aren’t done once the packaging is recycled,” explained Rackley. “You can provide product-level information too.”

The technology is also helping retailers track recycling through the supply chain. Ultraviolet (UV) tags printed on packaging are designed to manage extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulatory compliance.

Special scanners read the invisible UV tags in recycling centres to identify when a particular product has been recycled, providing insights into product recycling rates for environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) targets.

Laura Fernandez, Senior Packaging and Sustainability Manager at Ocado Retail, said at the trial's launch that the technology is helping the retailer champion innovative sustainability technology use.

“Polytag’s digital platform offers plenty of environmental and economic benefits for retailers and customers alike – it’s easy to use and when used at scale, could have a hugely positive impact on the nation’s deposit return scheme.”

Rackley added that, following the success of its recent trials, the provider is working with a number of other retailers and brands. “We’re hardware agnostic,” she said.

“This means we can really collaborate to enable true circularity and enhance levels of traceability to support retailers and brands’ sustainability efforts.”

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