Sea life draws the shortest straw when it comes to plastic. Whether it’s a straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose or six-pack ring wrapped around a bird’s neck, millions of marine animals consume plastic each year inflicting upon them everything from suffocation to starvation. By 2050, nearly every seabird will have consumed plastic.
While straws and plastic bags have been at the center of this wave of discourse, six-pack rings are another common enemy. Their circular design makes it easy for wildlife to get entangled. One brewery in Delray Beach, Florida, found an innovative way to play a leading role in solving this problem: a biodegradable, edible six-pack ring.
Saltwater Brewery was founded by surfers, fishermen and ocean-lovers. So the environment has always been at the core of their work, said Dustin Jeffers, the co-founder and head of operations.
Though the brewery’s core mission is to make good beer, they’re also concerned about humankind’s impact on the environment. Because they made public their commitment to protecting the ocean, the marketing firm We Believers approached the brewery to create an eco-friendly six-pack ring in 2016.
Seaweed was initially considered for the rings, but it had its limitations. Then a brewery founder considered wheat and barley, which are the waste byproducts of the brewing process.
“This is a full circle,” Jeffers told NationSwell. “It’s a byproduct that we always have, so instead of using another resource to make [the rings], we have all of this at our disposal.”
It worked. The six-pack ring quickly breaks down in water and can be consumed by wildlife. The rings were brought to the market in January 2018, and by the middle of the year, the rings, along with their beer, could be found across both the East to West Coasts.
In a compost pile, the rings quickly biodegrade. But if they make their way into the water stream, the rings wills break down in just a few months (compared to plastic rings, which can turn into microplastics that never degrade).
While the rings are edible, Jeffers noted that they don’t replace food for marine life. The rings hold no nutritional value, so the company advises customers to not intentionally throw the product in the ocean.
“The best way I can describe it is having your child eat a Sour Patch Kid rather than a Lego,” Gove said. “It’s not a part of their diet, but it is something that is better than alternative, so that’s something to keep in mind,” Saltwater Brewery President Chris Gove told Mashable.
“This innovative product is a better alternative, and safer to the environment than the currently used plastic rings,” Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, told Kitchn. “Anything that is done to decrease the amount of plastics that we use is very important and well worth it.
Though Gomez-Chiarri praised the biodegradable rings, she cautioned that they contain the chemical PFAA, which, while not nearly as harmful to ocean life as plastics, can still be toxic to animals who ingest it.
Since the idea of the six-pack rings sparked in 2016, other companies have followed. Craft breweries in over 12 countries have adopted the rings. And now major beer companies are looking for similar solutions. This summer, MillerCoors announced its working with the tech firm Footprint to create a similar biodegradable six-pack ring.
“What we are trying to do is get away from the plastic and get more into the biodegradable, recyclable and bio-friendly solution,” MillerCoors brewmaster Jeff Nickel told Denver7.
“Are six-pack rings the worst thing in the ocean and causing the most problems? Of course not,” said Jeffers. “But it kind of gets people thinking about what else they can change.”
The next time you crack open a cold one, consider what you can do to make a change.