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Drink beer, help the ocean?

  • Saltwater Brewery has launched a prototype of biodegradable six-pack rings made from wheat and barley left over from the brewing process, which are non-toxic and disintegrate comparatively quickly in the ocean.
  • The innovation could significantly reduce marine plastic pollution and protect hundreds of thousands of sea creatures harmed or killed annually by plastic rings.
  • The brewery is perfecting the edible rings design, plans to eventually package all its cans using the technology and hopes investors and other breweries will support, adopt and popularize it.

Beer may have a bad rep among carb-fearing ab-chiseling fitness fans, but it could now be better for the environment than it was before. Well, at least the new kind packaged using edible six-pack rings from south Florida’s Saltwater Brewery.

This Delray Beach microbrewery north of Miami, Florida, just launched the first ever 100% compostable six-pack rings. Unlike their standard plastic counterparts, these rings feed, rather than harm, marine fauna if they end up in the ocean. Made from brewing byproducts such as barley and wheat ribbons, this design circumvents plastic’s often lethal ensnaring of birds, turtles and fish and its consequent interference with their development.

Plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050; it winds up in the stomachs of everything from plankton to whales. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

The clever packaging also presents a solution to plastic fatally clogging their digestive tracts when they swallow it, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals and bacteria into their bodies–repercussions even conscientiously cut rings have. The innovative rings start disintegrating within an hour of being in the water; if unconsumed, they’ll completely dissolve in two to three months instead of accumulating, polluting the ocean and threatening sea life for centuries as plastic rings do. But the edible rings, which look and feel like cardboard, function just as a carton box does in a household or supermarket fridge; their manufacturers claim these rings are as effective as plastic versions, strong enough to support the weight and handling of six beer cans.

“This packaging goes beyond recycling and strives to achieve zero waste,” said Gus Lauria, Chief Creative Officer and Cofounder of We Believers, the New York advertising company collaborating with the brewery on the innovation.

Saltwater Brewery’s Screamin’ Reels IPA in edible six-pack rings, which the company claims are as strong and effective as plastic ones. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

Making over plastic packaging

After lunch at a production shoot on the beach in March 2016, Lauria was struck by how much waste, especially plastic, that single meal had produced. This prompted the team to consider initiating an awareness campaign about trash, but after further brainstorming, it decided to address the issue head-on and manufacture a product to reduce marine plastic pollution. One of its members had a long-standing relationship with Saltwater Brewery’s leaders. According to Bo Eaton, Head of Sales and Co-Founder of Saltwater Brewery, its founders are primarily surfers and fishermen with a rooted concern for the environment. So they worked with We Believers and engineers at a Mexican startup through months of redesigns and tests to devise the inventive rings as a brand statement highlighting their interest in assisting ocean conservation. In April, they released a 500-unit pilot batch for Saltwater Screamin’ Reels IPA.

The prototype has received positive feedback from brewers, beer enthusiasts, environmentalists and everyday citizens, thanks largely to a viral video advertisement. But this could be more than just a successful ad campaign and superb publicity for the Florida brewery. It’s a modest enterprise, and six-pack rings constitute only a fraction of plastic garbage; however, if this model has no negative effect on ocean life and performs as well as conventional ones, scaling it up to take over various market niches currently occupied by plastic would remove a malignant tumor from marine ecosystems’ lungs. Shifting from plastic to compostable alternatives such as the edible, decomposable beer rings would thus prove a revolutionary switch for environmental conservation.

A turtle trapped in and deformed by a set of plastic six-pack rings. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

A 2015 Science article stated that between 40,000 and 110,000 metric tons of plastic waste in all forms enters the ocean annually from Americans alone; globally, the figure reaches eight million. This could be from direct littering or dumps where wind picks up trash and drops it in a storm drain so that it eventually finds its way to the sea through piping. The World Economic Forum estimates plastic will outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050. It winds up in the stomachs of everything from plankton to whales. Last year, a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study reported that about 90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic and probably retain it in their gut. And the Ocean Conservancy’s 2015 Ocean Trash Index singled out plastic as the trash item most consumed by sea turtles the previous year.

Making a difference with compostable beer rings

In 2015, Americans drank over three billion gallons of beer from cans in plastic rings. The Beer Institute projects canned beer consumption will increase significantly as craft breweries expand and shift from bottles to cans, which better maintain beer quality and flavor. Some recycling programs don’t accept plastic rings, and Americans only recycle about a third of their waste anyway. Still, these rings aren’t as damaging as they used to be in the 1970s, when people first noticed their environmental ramifications.

Since 1989, by law, all six-pack rings produced in America are made from 100 percent photo-degradable plastic, which starts breaking down after several days in sunlight and disintegrates within 60 to 120 days. This plastic, however, doesn’t completely disappear in that time; it continues to pose a risk to wildlife for many months. Several years ago, PakTech introduced the reusable hard plastic top-hugging holder now found on most craft beers as an eco-friendly alternative to six-pack rings, maintaining that even though it contained more plastic, it wouldn’t affect fauna as severely. Ultimately, though, plastic in any form inevitably takes a toll on the environment. Replacing the material with a sustainable one is our best bet, which makes Saltwater’s animal-feed six-pack rings particularly promising.

“There are multiple recyclable plastic ring types and cardboard options available,” said Saltwater Brewery President and Cofounder Chris Gove. “We believe our edible six pack rings are a responsible option today and for the future with [the] least amount of environmental impact.”

A close-up of the edible six pack rings. Made of byproducts from the brewing process, such as wheat and barley, they look and feel like stiff cardboard. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

Yet the new design is not without limitations. The major challenge facing a mainstream switch to these rings is that at 10 to 15 cents each, they are a little more expensive to produce than plastic ones. It’s not a light investment for the small brewery, but Saltwater is confident about inspiring continued support and commitment from investors and interested brewers and beer corporations to follow its lead, adopt the technology and transform their industry. The innovators believe it’d be much easier for bigger businesses to enhance the effectiveness of the 3D-printing production method; a wide-scale shift to the product would decrease its price and make it competitive with prevalent recyclable plastic rings. Saltwater also hopes customers would be happy to pay a bit more to purchase and popularize the green alternative, saving hundreds of thousands of marine animals and their habitat.

Another question the rings raise pertains to the ecological impact of dumping foreign substances in the ocean. Wouldn’t rings marketed as biodegradable legitimize and reinforce overconsumption when the focus should rather be on limiting resource use and resultant garbage, even if they may be more sustainable than usual options?

“Realistically, beer cans and plastic won’t go away. Unless creativity got rid of at least one of them,” noted Vega. “The materials used were successfully tested with wildlife in Mexico. Not only with sea animals but at [the] Zoo as well with a population of giraffes that was getting sick accidentally eating food from plastic cups.”

When asked what exactly the rings contain to make them so strong yet edible and compostable, however, the makers declined to answer because the patenting procedure is ongoing.

These six-pack rings feed fish, turtles and seabirds instead of entangling, choking, poisoning or killing them as plastic ones do, and could thereby save hundreds of thousands of marine lives. Photo credit: We Believers and Saltwater Brewery.

All the same, reinventing packaging to become waste-free and earth-friendly is a step in the right direction.

“It’s a game changer in terms of shifting our conversation on what can and should be done in the packaging industry. This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Marco Vega, Chief Strategy Officer and Cofounder of We Believers.

The innovators are still perfecting the large-scale process of producing and using the edible rings before they’ll hit the market, and they continue to consult environmental experts as they test and improve the product. Using a new aluminum and inox (stainless) steel machined mold, by early fall they’ll boost the manufacture of this more environmentally sound option to package all 400,000 Saltwater cans generated per month.

Scientists around the world are currently also researching how to harness plastic-eating bacteria to mitigate consumer culture’s plastic problem and protect the planet. Meanwhile, we might be able to crack open a cold one with less guilt. Cheers!