Environmentalists and wildlife lovers have worried about six-pack rings since the late 1970s when the plastic rings became the poster child for trashed beaches and oceans. Though the direct threat of six-pack rings may be overblown, driven by heart-wrenching images of strangled turtles and seabirds, the problems caused by plastic in the oceans is not. That’s why Saltwater Brewery in Delray Beach, Florida, recently developed a biodegradable, compostable alternative to the plastic rings.
Traditional six-pack rings are made from LDPE, a plastic that degrades in sunlight into small pieces that can be ingested by birds and other wildlife. But the new rings are engineered from barley and wheat byproducts left over from the brewing process.
The resulting six-pack carrier is strong enough to lug six cans of brew but is edible for sea creatures and naturally decomposes over time. Currently, Saltwater is the only brewery using the packaging, co-developed with the advertising agency We Believers. But over time they hope other breweries will adopt the technology, which will bring the price down.
“We hope to influence the big guys,” Saltwater president Chris Gove says in a video, “and hopefully inspire them to get onboard.”
Elyse Wanshel at The Huffington Post points to a 2015 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that estimates 90 percent of seabirds likely have some plastic in their gut, and that if things do not change, that number will reach 99 percent by 2050. She also cites the Ocean Conservancy’s 2015 Trash Index which says its half million volunteers encountered 57 marine mammals entangled in trash, 46 sea turtles, 440 fish, and 22 sharks, skates and rays while collecting trash from beaches and shorelines last year.
Saltwater Brewery’s new packaging isn’t the only game in town, however. In recent years many small breweries have adopted PakTech’s six-pack holders, made from recycled HDPE that are recyclable and have little chance of trapping or entangling animals. Even so, as John Tierney reported for The New York Times in 2015, plastic recycling is costly and energy intensive. One of the few solutions to our growing plastic dillema is following Saltwater Brewary's example and eliminating plastics altogether.