Biodegradable Six-Pack Rings Sound Great, but There Could Be a Downside

updated Jul 12, 2019
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Credit: Tom Grundy

A whale washed up on the shore with a stomach full of plastic. Beachgoers cut a struggling turtle out of a tangled mess of plastic and fishing net. Garbage is polluting our oceans. Horror stories like these are popping up in our news feeds with alarming frequency. Environmentalists attempt to clear the plastic from the ocean, but more and more is added every day. The situation is dire.

Little by little, however, some companies are making an effort to reduce the amount of plastic people use in their daily lives. One such push is coming from Saltwater Brewery in Florida, the first brewery to package and sell their beer cans with biodegradable six-pack rings. It’s the brainchild of a startup called e6pr.

A traditional six-pack ring made from plastic can take as many 450 years to completely decompose. Plastic rings that end up in the water or on beaches can cruelly trap animals, choking the necks of birds and turtles, or it can be mistaken for food (which animals can’t digest). Some attempts have already been made to eradicate this harmful form of plastic, like the recyclable can holder which can’t get caught around an animal’s neck. 

The e6pr rings, however, which are made from wheat and barley, biodegrade in a few days if they’re properly disposed of in the compost. If the rings end up outdoors, they take several weeks to decompose, but are safe for animals to eat. 

There’s still a possibility that marine animals like turtles could get trapped in e6pr, but they are still much safer than a traditional plastic six pack ring. “If they biodegrade fully in a few weeks, they would start to break down pretty quickly in seawater. I would think that the wheat and barley they are made of would get soft when they are wet,” Erin Seney, a research assistant in marine turtle ecology at University of Central Florida tells Kitchn.

That being said, Seney thinks it’s possible an immature turtle could get stuck in one of these rings, and wouldn’t be able to eat its way out, even though the rings are edible. Regardless, Seney is quick to emphasize that, “the animal would have a better chance of getting out of plant-based, quick-to-biodegrade ring than an essentially non-degradable plastic one.”

In theory, the e6pr six pack rings sounds like an unimpeachably good idea. Any technology that could eventually reduce the amount of plastic in nature is a step in the right direction. Yet the rings are expensive to manufacture and aren’t yet widely available, although they have “received great interest from many breweries, companies, and individuals worldwide,” according to Saltwater Brewery.

Even if the rings were to be adopted nationwide, marine sciences biologists expressed reservations that the product could be implemented irresponsibly both by companies and consumers. 

“Any reduction in single-use plastic is positive and hopeful,” Dr. Kate Mansfield, a marine scientist and associate professor at the University of Central Florida, tells Kitchn. But Mansfield worries that marketing a product like this would make people more comfortable with waste. “We need to focus more on reducing all waste that is introduced to our ocean habitats. [The biodegradable six pack rings] may be safe for some animals, but not for others or local ecosystems.”

Other ingredients used to make the rings also sparked concern. Dr. Marta Gomez-Chiarri, chairman of the University of Rhode Island’s fisheries, animal, and veterinary sciences department, took a look at the patent and found that one of the chemicals in the ingredient list is PFAA, which has potentially toxic effects on some marine life. Still, she’s optimistic that e6pr will ultimately help slow down plastic pollution. 

“This innovative product is a better alternative, and safer to the environment, than the currently used plastic rings,” Gomez-Chiarri says. “Anything that is done to decrease the amount of plastics that we use is very important and well worth it. I also think it is great that the process to make the rings uses waste from the process of making beer, therefore diminishing waste.”

Until more breweries switch out plastic rings for e6pr (or develop their own biodegradable rings) it will be difficult to determine the efficacy of the product. Saltwater Brewery is admirable, of course, for leading the charge in reducing plastic packaging, but for e6pr to fully understand its impact on our oceans, breweries and other beverage companies would need to invest in this technology.