The six-pack rings that keep our cans neatly bundled together are plastic, translucent and are a well-known hazard to marine animals if their end-of-life stage misses the landfill or the recycling center. Therefore, one plucky beer-brewing company in the United States has now come up with an idea for six-pack rings that will amaze you, and they could change the world for the better.
Amazingly, Americans drank 6.3 billion gallons of beer in 2015, half of which came from cans. An unknown number of the six-pack rings from these cans can end up in the ocean, potentially causing damage or death to marine life – including endangered species of seals, turtles and birds. Like plastic bags, the rings are often mistaken for a favorite meal: jellyfish. The rings, then, can lead to entanglement, intestinal blockage and even strangulation.
Indeed, researchers from the U.K.’s Plymouth University found 340 papers dating back to the 1960s that documented some 44,000 individual animals – nearly 700 species, 17 of which are threatened or near threatened – having negative interactions with plastic, glass or other debris in the environment. Most of the time the problem was with plastic.
And most of the plastic in the ocean is there because of carelessness on land. Marine debris from ships account for an estimated 20 percent of the problem – with the rest coming from onshore sources, sometimes thousands of miles inland from the beach. The problem also isn’t plastic that somehow escapes landfills or recycling centers, but rather the plastic we let fall on the street or unknowingly wash down the drain from body scrubs, toothpastes and acne gels containing microplastics as abrasives.
This misshapen red-eared slider is a painful example of what a six-pack ring can do to a creature. The turtle got tangled in a ring at a young age and spent four years growing with the constriction. Thankfully in 1993, Missouri wildlife officials put Peanut (as the turtle is now called) under protective care, but the damage to the turtle’s shell was permanent.
Of course, there are already some laws governing the manufacture of plastic six-pack rings. A U.S. federal law passed in 1989, for instance, required companies to make all six-pack rings out of photodegradable polyethylene. This means that they become brittle when exposed to sunlight, and they break apart after a month or two.
The law is a step in the right direction, but even that amount of time entangled in a ring can be fatal to an animal. The other problem is that plastic never decomposes – it only breaks down into smaller bits, and the problems with microplastics are a growing concern.
Enter the co-founders of the advertising agency We Believers, Marco Vega and Gustavo Lauria. They were eating lunch during a production shoot and realized a single meal could produce a great deal of disposable plastic trash. They decided to come up with a way of reducing plastic waste, focusing specifically on six-pack rings.
They contacted the Saltwater Brewery based in Delray Beach, Florida. The brewery has an environmentally-conscious ethos, and it works with a number of marine charities and non-profit organizations to help look after the oceans. The two companies were a perfect match; together they would do something that could turn six-pack rings into an environmental aid, instead of a hazard.
Their idea was to invent a new kind of six-pack ring, one that marine life could eat without choking. This would take the burden of responsibility off the consumer by solving the problem at the manufacturing level. But they had to think of the right material for the job: something that animals could munch on safely, yet be strong enough for the product’s original purpose.
Their first idea was to make the six-pack rings out of dried seaweed, but they decided against it when they learned that the material was too stiff and brittle when dry. Incredibly, the perfect material would turn out to be right under their very noses, at the Saltwater Brewery.
To make the edible six-pack rings, then, they used barley and wheat remnants, which are a byproduct of the beer-brewing process. The resulting rings were 100 percent compostable and edible. Crucially, the rings also did their job of nicely holding together a six-pack of beer.
And unlike plastic rings that take weeks to crumble into smaller plastic pieces, if these edible rings end up in the water, they degrade within a matter of hours. Should a fish or turtle still get its head caught in the ring, then, it won’t stay caught for long.
We Believers made an initial batch of 500 working prototypes of the edible rings using a 3D printer. They were then attached to six-packs of Saltwater Brewery’s Screamin’ Reels IPA and distributed at various shops and points of purchase.
The innovative rings soon caught the imagination of the internet, and a video promoting them quickly went viral. The video shows the negative effects that plastic has on sea life, followed by footage of fish and turtles feeding on the new, edible rings.
For now, the number of six-packs using these edible rings is small, but Saltwater hopes to eventually use them across all of its canned beers, which is around 400,000 a month. Looking beyond that, Saltwater’s president, Chris Gove, wants them to become even more widespread.
“We want to influence the big guys and inspire them to get on board… As well as save hundreds of thousands of marine animals’ lives,” said Gove. The rings are currently more expensive to make than regular ones, but if enough major beer producers invest in the product the price will eventually meet market demand.
This isn’t the first six-pack rings offered as a substitute, though. In 2010, for instance, Paktech released its Can Carrier rings, which cover the entire top of the can and are made from high-density polyethylene, a type of plastic Americans recycle at a relatively high rate of 29.3 percent. However, the caps are infamously awkward to use, are four times heavier than traditional rings, and not anymore eco-friendly if they wind up in the oceans.
If the Edible Rings are to catch on, then, they’ll be a small step toward solving a much bigger problem, as plastic rings make up just a small portion of plastic marine litter. Indeed, the United States alone generates around 32 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, and Americans recycle only nine percent of it.
Fortunately, dozens of breweries have already shown their interest in wrapping these edible rings around their own cans, which is undoubtedly a sign that they’re on the way to becoming more widespread. We Believers has a big manufacturing run of the rings planned, offering hope that we could be on the brink of a six-pack ring revolution.
There have been plenty of other experiments with redefining traditionally plastic products, too. Skipping Rocks Lab, for example, came up with an edible water bottle made of a seaweed-derived membrane, while a company called WikiFoods wraps products in edible packages made of natural ingredients. None of these are commercially widespread yet, but the brilliant minds behind them prove that we have the technologies to make great things happen.