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Major in Beer

by | Mar 13, 2020

Jim Denz (foreground) and Tim Francis of Island Dog Brewing with their compostable four-pack rings. photo/Tom Major

Maine’s craft beer industry fosters its reputation for collegiality. Brewers tell of lending each other supplies, equipment, and sometimes even employees. They make collaboration brews so they can trade techniques and tips and then drink the night away. Competition only heats up for events like the annual Battle of the Brewery Bands or the Industrial Park Challenge at the Great Lost Bear, and even then it’s good-natured. 

But bring up the subject of sustainable packaging to a brewery owner, and you’re likely to hear an undertone of discord. They won’t criticize each other by name, of course, but the environmental ethics of using plastic four- and six-pack rings has lately become a sticky subject.

In 1960, Illinois Tool Works (ITW) introduced the Hi-Cone flexible plastic six-pack ring. Made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE #4), the ring straps are light, durable, and easy to apply mechanically. For breweries, they represented a significant improvement over cardboard and wire packaging. By 1970, the Hi-Cone was ubiquitous. 

But its durability was also a liability. By 1980, the Environmental Protection Agency was calling these types of rings a menace to marine wildlife, because they can entangle, injure and kill seabirds, turtles, and marine mammals. Regulators required them to be photodegradable, so the plastic would harden and crumble. However, those plastic crumbs can be injested by animals and work their poisonous way up the food chain to you-know-who.

LDPE is recyclable, but finding a facility to accept it is tough. For example, ecomaine rejects them because the thin, flexible plastic gets tangled in their processing equipment and contaminates their waste-paper stream.

Still, the Hi-Cone-style rings are low-cost, and they can be applied to 2,400 cans per minute. The few Maine breweries that still use them typically say that though they’re continually re-evaluating their options, no viable alternative exists to meet their needs.    

The most common alternative to the ring strap is the package holder made by PakTech, a family-owned company headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. Made entirely of post-consumer, recycled, high-density polyethylene (HDPE #2), these closed-cap handles are used by most of the breweries in Maine.

Greg Norton, owner of The Bier Cellar, a beer shop in Portland and Gorham, said, “PakTech really is the industry standard, because they work, and systems are set up to use them, and customers are used to them.” 

However, ecomaine won’t accept these handles either. Although PakTech’s holders are more rigid than Hi-Cones, they’re too flat for the sorting equipment and also wind up mixed into the waste paper.

In 2018, Allagash Brewing’s Green Team began to develop a PakTech-holder recycling plan. A coalition formed that includes Sebago Brewing, Bissell Brothers, Austin Street, the Bier Cellar, and CLYNK, the redemption business attached to Hannaford supermarkets. The breweries and the beer shop agreed to collect used PakTech holders and transfer them to CLYNK, which sends them a company that reprocesses them for use as outdoor furniture, deck planks and other products. Since the program was launched last year, the coalition has collected well over a ton of can handles, and more breweries and bottle shops have joined the campaign. 

Geary Brewing, a member of the coalition, initially used PakTech holders on all their cans, but discovered that the closed-cap design trapped condensation on the can lids during the canning process. So they adopted an alternative design offered by the North Carolina company Roberts PolyPro: a rigid open-ring handle made of HDPE #2.

Peter Brown, Geary’s operations director, explained, “We, like everyone else in the industry, have to fill cans at a temperature that causes the cans to sweat once filled. … The fact that [the Roberts handles] are skeletonized allows for greater ventilation.”

Then another obstacle presented itself: Geary’s found that the open-ring handles are not stable enough for the additional weight of a six-pack of 12 oz. cans. So for those, they use the PakTech closed-cap holders — after ensuring that the cans are fully dried. Both types of handles are recyclable through the CLYNK system. The Roberts PolyPro has the advantage of using 25 percent less plastic than the PakTech product, but the company does not claim to make its handles entirely from recycled plastic, as PakTech does.

Two Maine breweries recently rejected plastic handles entirely, in favor of a compostable, molded-fiber product called the Eco Six Pack Ring (E6PR). Created by a Mexican engineering firm in partnership with a New York ad agency, and funded by venture capitalists, the product was originally called the Edible Six Pack Ring, in reference to the company’s claim that it’s safe for marine animals to nibble on. (Someone apparently realized the drawback of referencing wildlife eating garbage tossed into the ocean.)

SaltWater Brewery, in Delray, Florida, was the first to use E6PR holders. Corona and Guinness have since signed on, along with about 20 American beverage makers, most of them craft breweries. In Maine, NU Brewery, which opened last year in New Gloucester, was an early adopter.

Russell Voss, co-founder and CEO of NU, said using E6PR holders was part of the plan since the brewery’s inception. He and co-founder/president Chris Ventimiglia are dedicated to making their brewery as sustainable as possible. That includes ensuring all the utensils and containers used by the brewery and its partner food truck, Yolked, are compostable. They send spent grains from the brewing process to Stillbrook Acres, the local dairy farm that supplies the milk for Yolked’s ice cream. 

Earlier this year, Tim Francis and Jim Denz, owners of Island Dog Brewing, in South Portland, announced that they’re switching from PakTech holders to E6PRs. Like NU, Island Dog is willing to pay a little more for a more sustainable handle; the compostability of the product is worth the two cents more per can, Francis and Denz said.

When Tim Little of State 64, the mobile canning company that packages Island Dog’s beer, presented the E6PR as an alternative, Denz and Francis were eager to adopt it. Because State 64 buys the E6PRs and sells them at-cost to their brewing partners in the quantity they need for any given canning run, it spares breweries the effort of finding space to store the minimum order — which is one pallet, containg 14,400 handles — and the relatively high up-front cost of such an order. That minimum order, however, may deter some breweries with their own canning lines from switching from PakTech to E6PR. 

Other brewery owners have noted the drawbacks that keep them from switching to E6PRs. There is currently no mechanical packing machine for E6RP holders, so they must be attached to the cans by hand, which means a maximum of two at a time. This may be feasible for small-batch breweries, but for the larger ones, it would be impractical.

Some brewers also said they’ve conducted informal tests of the product and determined the holders would degrade prematurely. Denz said he and Francis carefully tested E6PRs before deciding to use them.   

Heather Sanborn, co-founder of Rising Tide Brewing, in Portland, said the fiber used in the E6PR holders appears to originate in China. (The company says it uses “barley and wheat remnants from the brewing process” to make the holders, but also references “other compostable materials,” of unspecified origin, on its website.)

“When we evaluate our supply chain, the carbon footprint of each of our materials is a critical component of the evaluation,” Sanborn said. “At the moment, these [E6PR] rings have far too long a journey for us to consider them as an ‘eco-friendly’ alternative.” 

It seems that the PakTech and E6PR holders are both more eco-friendly than the old Hi-Cones, but each has its advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, the handle is just a way to get the beer to its destination, so it falls to the drinker to make sure it gets recycled, or composted, properly. 

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