In 2018 National Geographic reported almost 700 species have been harmed by ocean plastic, and about 18 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the sea annually. These are not just large pieces of identifiable materials, like plastic cups, straws, water bottles and cutlery—though, those are all there. It’s what they can become: 15-50 trillion pieces of microplastics, measuring less than 5 mm long or about the size of a sesame seed.
Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its Marine Debris Program are leading efforts to research microplastics and determine how to properly combat the global problem. While there’s a lot we don’t know about their lasting impacts, or how far they’ve penetrated the food chain (i.e., our dinner table), NOAA and its ilk advocate keeping plastics out of the ocean in the first place.
Global leaders want to phase out as much single-use plastic as possible. The U.N. reported 127 countries have implemented some type of policy regulating plastic bags. Canada will ban single-use plastic by 2021, while Peru will phase out single-use plastic bags over the next three years. Stateside, San Diego banned Styrofoam in January, and 200 other cities either forbid or at least tax plastic bags. Currently, though, it’s largely up to consumer habits and business choices to eliminate or at least alleviate our plastic waste problem, one piece at a time.
So let’s start with one of the most infamous symbols of plastic waste since the 1970s: six-pack rings.
Notice I used “most infamous symbol” and not “biggest problem.” Technically, six-pack rings are only a fraction of the billions of tons of plastic waste in the world. Nevertheless, since the original six-pack ring, designed by ITW Hi-Cone, came out in 1960, they’ve proven deadly for animals that ingest them. Some animals even become ensnared in the rings—a grisly sight we’ve all seen documented over the last three decades.
Reports by the New York Times and the Associated Press in 1984 and 1987, respectively, brought attention to the problem when it was estimated that millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals were killed by six-pack rings annually. In 1994 the EPA ruled all plastic rings be made degradable; often photodegradable, breaking down in light in about three to four weeks. Some manufacturers, like Hi-Cone, claim their rings break down in cloudy, cold winter weather, but it takes up to four months.
Nowadays the plastic six-pack rings of yore are being replaced. Some are made with new designs and materials specifically for reuse or recycling, such as the six-pack “yokes,” which cans snap in and out of for multiple uses. In June 2019 Corona announced they would try Grupo Modelo’s environmentally friendly interlocking beer can design (held together by tiny bits of strong glue). Fast Company reported in December 2019 that Coca-Cola and AB InBev will roll out new cardboard carriers in Europe this year.
Just down the road in Surf City, Salty Turtle Beer Company is the first brewery in North Carolina to use completely biodegradable, compostable and even edible six-pack rings by E6PR. They’re made of wheat and barley in Mexico.
Co-owners Daniel Callender, Zack White and Dean Kelley considered a few packaging options when they set the goal to start canning last November. Though appealing, cardboard rings proved less sturdy. Being from San Diego, Callendar comes from a culture of recycling; it’s built into the education system and everyday life. While reusable/recyclable plastic rings might initially seem like a move in the right direction, he’s not convinced they’re not contributing to a bigger problem at hand.
“You do see some places that recycle them,” he says. “They use them for other mix packs and stuff, but at the end of the day . . . I think most people just throw them in the trash.”
In California, some breweries have decided to forgo supplying packaging entirely. Consumers bring their own carriers when they buy multi-packs of singles. However, Callendar wasn’t ready to go that far right now. Instead, he found E6PR at Florida’s SaltWater Brewery a few years ago. The rings decompose quicker than plastic. “The big thing is if wildlife somehow [eats] them, they can digest it,” he notes.
The team tested the rings in water with cans in them for 10 days. They were sturdy and held their own. Though Callendar says E6PR rings are double the cost of plastic right now, it’s a nominal fee, considering what Salty Turtle owners want their business to stand for.
“There might be people that actually just buy our beers because of these,” he quips, tapping a set of stiff rings on the counter. “We’d like to think we make good beer, but at the same time, people like that conscious effort of protecting the environment and saving the ecosystem little by little and everyone wants to do their part.”
Their namesake, The Salty Turtle, also carries forth their mission. The brewery has a close partnership with the Karen Beasley’s Sea Turtle Hospital next door. Once a quarter, they choose a beer and proceeds from that beer goes to the hospital’s rescue and rehabilitation of turtles.
Callender says he’s already caught word of other North Carolina breweries thinking about the switch. It will help with the bottom line in the long run per supply and demand. “As the trend continues to catch on, I think the cost will start dropping on these as well,” he adds.