A Florida brewery is saving the ocean, one biodegradable six-pack ring at a time

Tasty and eco-friendly both.
Tasty and eco-friendly both.
Image: AP Photo/Dave Martin
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We’ve known for decades that our fondness for Ziploc bags, food wrappers and other plastics is hurting the environment—particularly sea life. But both consumers and businesses have proven largely unwilling to sacrifice the convenience of single-use plastics.

Now one Florida brewing company says it’s found a way to take the guilt out of at least one common form of plastic waste. Last month, Saltwater Brewery introduced new, eco-friendly six-pack rings for their beer, a project developed in conjunction with New York ad agency We Believers. The grain-based rings are both biodegradable and edible—so rather than choking on them, marine life can safely chow down on them instead.

The brewery makes the rings by shipping grain leftover from its beer-making process offsite. The grain is then bound with biopolymer, a protein occurring in living organisms, and pressed into shape.

The decision to go green was an easy one for the Delray Beach, Florida, brewery, which was founded in 2013. 

“We have to get rid of our waste every time we brew,” the brewery’s president Chris Gove said. “You start with a thousand pounds and after wetting it through the process, you end up with 3,000 pounds. It’s a cost to the brewery and a hassle, and we’ve been giving it to farmers for cattle. Now we have something better to do with it.”

While the spent-grain compound isn’t super nutritious for sea creatures, it’s not harmful in any way. Gove compared it to candy for children. “It’s a comparison of a Lego to a Sour Patch Kid,” he said. “It’s not giving them their 100% nutritional value, but they’re not going to the hospital.”

With 700 marine species in danger of extinction due to plastic pollution, these kinds of changes from corporations can’t come fast enough. As it stands, 67 billion cans of beer are consumed each year. As canned beer becomes the trendy way to package craft beers, that number seems likely to continue to rise.

The switch to biodegradable rings was costly for Saltwater Brewery—at least at first. They had no funding, and threw themselves into the work of developing, creating and marketing the rings, using what Gove referred to as “sweat equity.” Currently, consumers have to pay about 10 cents more per beer for the technology. But Gove says they haven’t gotten complaints, and in time, the brewery hopes to get the price of the eco-friendly rings below the cost of plastic ones. The cans, being aluminum, are 100% recyclable.

“Initially it was costly on all scales,” he said, “but on the large scale, it made sense, and we found that the demand is there. It’s just a little extra and people are willing to pay for it for the environment.”

Right now the brewery offers a mix of plastic rings and the new biodegradable rings. They rolled a first batch of 500 rings to test customer interest, which sold like hotcakes. In coming months, the brewery hopes to shift completely over to edible rings. The brewery also plans to make the biopolymer technology blueprint available for purchase, so that other beverage companies can stop using plastic rings, too.

Saltwater Brewery is already being recognized for its charitable and environmental goals, and took home a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Compassionate Business award last month.

“Not only are they using up their own waste in a positive way, they’re helping save animals by feeding them instead of killing them with plastic particles,” said PETA spokesperson Laura Castada. “They’ve gotten good publicity and sales out of the deal, too. There is no downside to going environmentally friendly.”