Chief Executive Officer at Footprint
You’ve probably seen the photograph of the turtle trapped in a six-pack ring. If you haven’t, imagine one of the six rings forming a belt about halfway down the turtle’s shell, deforming it into the shape of a violin.
Most six-pack rings are made from polyethylene, which is not biodegradable. Like plastic straws, they can end up in the ocean, mistaken for food by marine life, filling up the stomachs of turtles, fish, and birds and slowly starving animals to death.
The image of the turtle is challenging to look at as we imagine it suffering for years, unable to fight off the plastic corset. However, that photo – and others like it – became an iconic symbol in the fight against plastic waste and helped encourage people to act.
There’s no way around it. Plastic six-pack rings are part of the plastic pollution problem we have on this planet and a buzzkill for environmentally conscious beer drinkers. So, what are we supposed to do?
Ringing in a new era of beverage packaging
Thankfully, those who love whales as much as they love canned ales don’t have to choose between the two anymore. New technologies are allowing beer manufacturers to sell six-pack cans in fiber-based rings that are biodegradable. Made by my company, Footprint, the rings are made from recycled materials and can be composted in commercial facilities.
We are now working with Colorado Native, a craft beer manufacturer that is part of AC Golden Brewing Company, to test plastic-free, fiber-based six-pack rings that are eco-friendly and biodegradable. Colorado Native is an incubator brewery for Coors Brewing Company, charged with developing premium beers for the brand.
When we talked to him for our release, David Coors, president of AC Golden, said, “As a company, environmental stewardship is incredibly important from the ingredients grown in the field to the packaging on our products.”
Americans need a biodegradable six-pack ring now more than ever because our beer habits are evolving and the six-pack is on the rise.
Plastic six-pack rings became available in the 1960s. By the 1970s, we knew these beers created a vast environmental hangover. In a beach cleanup on the Oregon Coast in 1988, volunteers reported picking up more than 1,500 six-pack rings in just a few hours.
As awful as that sounds, it could have been worse. Then, six-pack rings were problematic, but they weren’t yet as pervasive and ubiquitous as they are today.
In that era of big breweries, many – if not most – consumers bought their beer in cases (24-packs) and 12 packs, each packaged in less problematic cardboard boxes. Beer was a cheap commodity. For the most part, you bought it in bulk.
Then, enter the 1990s and the craft beer boom.
Watered-down, mass-produced pilsners became unfashionable. In were all sorts of styles Americans had never previously seen on their liquor store shelves. India Pale Ales. Ambers. Belgian Tripels. Small manufacturers began making artisanal beers in small batches, and they sold them in smaller amounts.
In the early days of the craft explosion, manufacturers favored glass bottling over canning. Bottles just seemed classier, a way for small brewers to separate themselves from their mainstream, conglomerate cousins at Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Coors.
We all told ourselves that beer in glass tasted better, whether it was true or not. (It wasn’t.)
So, the people most likely to buy six packs were purchasing them in cardboard boxes. Everything was going great, sort of. Eventually, even the little guys saw the advantage in canning. Moreover, in the past five years, cans became standard for craft brewers.
Cans offer many benefits. They’re lighter, and, therefore, less expensive to ship. They can preserve freshness longer than glass because they do a better job of blocking light and oxygen. Cans are very easy for the average person to recycle, and they are very transportable, being permitted at beaches and other areas where glass bottles are banned.
Nowadays, whether your six pack of choice consists of Miller Lite tall boys or a milk stout, chances are, it’s in a can. More beer is being consumed in cans, and more of those cans are being sold as six packs.
Increasingly, American beer consumers value innovation and sophistication in their suds. We expect more from our beer now. So, why not expect the same in packaging?
We should invest as much effort into developing better six-pack rings as we have into developing new variations of the IPA. Let’s create a world where we can enjoy a beer among friends without that image of the violin-shaped turtle tormenting us.
The solution is possible, and it’s being ushered in by strong consumer sentiment and demand for sustainability as well as responsible beer brewers looking for ways to differentiate.