In the first of a two-part series on how to be an eco-friendly craft beer drinker, I tackle the plastic problem
Anyone who’s purchased take-away craft beer from a liquor store or brewery taproom knows the preferred packaging these days is the 16-ounce can. And you can argue that’s a good thing: as the Earth 911 website clarifies in a recent article, aluminum beverage containers, especially those made from 100 percent recycled materials, come out ahead when compared to their glass or plastic counterparts. Unfortunately, for those of us as passionate about preserving the planet as we are about craft beer, we know the convenient plastic packaging on those cans is part of a bigger environmental problem. The good news for discerning consumers is that breweries largely know this too, and many of them are as interested in alternatives to plastic as eco-conscious beer drinkers are.
If you’d rather listen than read, check out my recent appearance on the Branding Brews Podcast below, during which I shared much of the content from this 2-part blog post with host Ryan Weaton.
From an environmental perspective, plastic is a menace. Its manufacturing requires the use of crude oil and natural gas, which in turn increases demand for drilling and fracking which contribute to climate change and a whole host of other serious issues. What’s more, an estimated 91 percent of plastic never gets recycled, ending up in landfills where it takes hundreds of years to decompose, or sometimes in our oceans where it can have a devastating impact on sea life and birds. The problems associated with single-use plastic are nothing new, and have caused businesses to search for creative answers in recent years. One you may have heard about is Salt Water Brewery in Florida, who commissioned startup company E6PR, to create eco-friendly beer can rings made from organic plant materials. Unlike other can carriers, they’re compostable and don’t harm wildlife even if eaten.
Recently, global brands like Corona and Carlsberg have announced they would begin using them on a trial basis. A number of American craft breweries, including NU Brewing in Maine, have also switched from plastic packaging to the truly biodegradable and safe-for-sealife Eco Rings. A wide-scale launch of the product began last year and Saltwater Brewery’s invitation to other breweries to adopt them seems to be gaining momentum in New England and elsewhere.
In addition to their willingness to test out the eco-friendly 6-pack rings, Carlsberg and Corona have developed impressive innovations of their own. Late last year Carlsberg announced it would phase in new Snap Packs, which use recyclable glue to hold cans together. More recently, Corona introduced a new can design it calls the Fit Pack which uses no packaging materials at all.
The Fit Pack utilizes a design that allows up to 10 beer cans to stack on and screw in to one another. If successful it could eliminate the need not just for plastic, but cardboard, glue or any other packaging waste. Unlike most solutions, this one has the potential to be fully adopted across the beverage industry because it doesn’t require the use of other materials. Additionally, as part of its vow to protect beaches from plastic, Corona says the Fit Pack blueprints will be open source and available to the entire industry. They are currently running a consumer pilot study of the new cans in Mexico.
All three ideas are a step in the right direction, especially if larger, coastal craft breweries like Harpoon, located on Boston’s waterfront, or Cisco Brewers*, which originated on Nantucket, were to become early adopters. Both breweries have implemented a number of commendable pro environment efforts, but like many in the industry Harpoon still uses a variety of harmful plastic packaging options and Cisco uses photodegradable 6-pack rings, which are somewhat safer for sea life than rigid plastic can carriers but have their own set of environmental problems.
While it’s admirable that some in the industry are working on solutions, for environmentally conscious consumers the bigger question is what to do about our culture’s single-use mentality? The answer for responsible stewards of the planet is to commit in earnest to that familiar three-word phrase: reduce, re-use, recycle. And in that order. Unfortunately, the inverse of this advice is what most of us currently practice. We give little thought to the number of single-use items we use, justify our actions by dropping them into our recycling bins, and naively think the problem is solved. Out of sight, out of mind.
The sad reality is that the U.S. is currently facing a recycling crisis that has caused municipalities everywhere to cancel or curtail their curbside collection programs. Massachusetts is reported to be among the hardest hit states, with plastic, glass, and paper piling up at recycling facilities or being shipped to landfills as a result of special waivers. Due to a ban China imposed on imports of recyclable waste from the U.S., some even fear that recycling could soon become a thing of the past. If so, the problems associated with landfills and incineration facilities (air and groundwater pollution, acid rain, creation of dioxins and toxic ash) will only get worse.
So what’s an environmentally conscious craft beer drinker to do? Start by remembering that the recycling bin is the last resort, especially when it comes to plastic. A better strategy for things like can carriers, and one that many consumers already practice, is reusing them. Numerous local breweries have already adopted this practice. On a recent trip to Stone Cow Brewery we turned in a box full of PakTechs that we’d saved up over the last several months. Last year they started a “can-carrier movement” that encourages customers to bring them in to be cleaned, sanitized, and re-used at their farm brewery. So far, they’ve packaged more than 6,000 cans from re-used carriers. Just last month, Cape Cod Beer also started accepting customer turn-ins of used plastic carriers for re-use on retail sales of mixed 4 and 6-packs.
Of course, the ideal would be to avoid plastic packaging all together. Although PakTechs are made from recycled materials, ironically, they’re not recyclable through most municipal curbside collection programs. Instead, they have to be collected at special drop-off locations that in turn are supposed to send them to special recycling facilities. There is currently recycling facility anywhere in Massachusetts. Beer’d Brewing in Connecticut is currently in the process of creating a drop-off center at their Stonington brewery, but hasn’t found a local recycling facility to work with. In Maine, Sebago Brewing has collection bins at all of its locations according to a tweet it posted earlier this month, but it doesn’t appear they have a processor who will accept them either.
A Massachusetts brewery that everyone is familiar with, Tree House Brewing, has managed to avoid plastic packaging all together. Instead, they supply boxes (which one brewery owner told us were actually cheaper than plastic carriers) for carry out beer purchases. Considering Tree House was the state’s fourth largest beer producer last year, that means a substantial amount of plastic didn’t end up at incineration plants, landfills or in waterways.
Not every brewery has the clout of an industry darling like Tree House, however, where they set the rules and consumers fall in line with whatever they say. For most breweries, questions or complaints about the absence of convenient plastic carriers for retail sales may be a valid concern. And that’s to say nothing of the distribution model that most of the state’s largest breweries rely on. We’ve heard countless stories of breweries being told that if they don’t package their beer in 16-ounce 4-packs with plastic can carriers, distributors won’t even work with them.
One alternative for larger craft breweries is to package flagship beers or variety packs in enclosed cardboard, a material that is largely recycled. A few even use the same packaging when distributing their 4-packs of 16-ounce cans. Another possible solution would be for beer stores to remove plastic can carriers and send them back to breweries for re-use via their distributors. As for customers, stores and taprooms could provide custom reusable bags for shoppers to carry out their purchases. More common in the industry when bottles were in vogue, it wouldn’t be too difficult to design a bag for carrying cans. Just think of the free advertising that breweries and beer stores could get by printing their logos on them.
As for the other plastic culprit in craft beer – festival and beer garden cups – that presents an even bigger problem, and one that’s not as easily avoided. I know, because I’ve been doing it for the whole month of June. Practically every brewery that serves beer for outdoor consumption or pours samples at a festival is contributing to the mountain of single-use waste that’s piling up every year. And unfortunately those compostable PLA cups made out of corn starch that beer pourers or festival volunteers brag about are only helpful if they’re collected separately from garbage or recycling and sent to a commercial composting facility. It doesn’t appear that anyone is doing that. If put into recycling bins, which they almost always are, they actually contaminate the recycling process. If they end up in a landfill, it could take 100 years or more for them to break down. Compostable cups may seem like an easy solution, but the devil is always in the details.
Confusion over the difference between recyclable, compostable, photodegradable or biodegradable only adds to the problem. And the absence of separate streams and proper signage for disposing of various products at beer gardens and festivals isn’t helping. One exception is the Aeronaut Musical Beer Garden, held on Saturdays in Arlington. There, compostable cups are collected in separately marked bins and later picked up by Boston-based Bootstrap Compost. They eventually end up at a larger commercial facility in Saugus where they get composted. Aeronaut says it’s working to get the infrastructure in place to do the same thing at its Allston beer garden.
Given the realities of recycling limitations, it’s safe to assume that most cups suffer a less enviable fate at Metro Boston’s other beer gardens. Plastic cups are used at several of them, with a varying degree of collection efforts. At Cisco’s Seaport location, which serves a variety of beverages in aluminum cans, there are no recycling bins at all, just trash cans. Both Night Shift and Castle Island said the issue of single-use PLA cups and the lack of proper collection for such compostables at their beer gardens was on their radar and something they were working to change for next year. Both have clearly marked recycling bins for plastic water bottles and aluminum cans, but nothing for the PLA cups.
Admittedly its unclear how many of these new sustainable solutions will be affordable or realistic for smaller breweries. But considering that two-thirds of the state’s beer production comes from larger regional breweries (and two-thirds of the profits), perhaps they should shoulder more of the burden associated with environmental problems. Consumers will need to do their part too. Fortunately recent research indicates that most beer purchasers (and not just craft drinkers) are willing to pay more for sustainably-produced and packaged beer. For consumers to have the biggest impact, they have to reward environmental efforts by voting with their wallets, or to respond to reluctance by voting with their feet.
It’s not easy being green: 7 steps you can take to walk-the-walk as an eco-friendly craft beer drinker trying to avoid plastic
If you’re willing to make an effort: (1) Try not to purchase beer packaged in plastic can carriers. If you must, remove the cans carefully as not to damage the rings and return them to a brewery that accepts turn-ins or re-use them yourself. (2) When purchasing beer straight from a brewery, send a message by declining the can carriers and use a box or re-usable bag to carry out your takeaway beer.
If you want to go the extra step: (3) Seek out brands that don’t use plastic packaging. (4) Voice your concern to breweries about the impact plastic packaging and cups have on the environment and let them know about the efforts other breweries are making.
If you’re ready to go all in: (5) If your favorite breweries use compostable cups, find out whether they properly collect and send them to a commercial composting facility. If not, ask them to consider it. (6) Let breweries know that you’re willing to pay a little bit more to support those kind of changes because they benefit the environment. (7) If a festival or beer garden only serves beer in single-use cups (and most do), look for one that doesn’t. A great example is the Notch Traveling Biergarten* collaboration with the Trustees of Reservations, which requires patrons to pay a deposit for using provided glassware. When you’ve had your fill, just return it for a refund before leaving.
* Cisco Brewers, which originated on Nantucket in 1995, entered into a strategic brewing and distribution partnership with Craft Brew Alliance in late 2015. CBA, which is now 100% owned by AB-InBev, then purchased the Cisco brand and brewing business outright in October of 2018. The Nantucket brewery was not part of the deal, but the vast majority of Cisco beer (basically, everything in distribution) is now brewed, packaged, and distributed from CBA’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire facility.
* The Notch Traveling Biergarten only uses glassware at its Trustees of Reservations events. Other locations use compostable PLA cups, but do not collect them separately for commercial composting.