In the 1980s, soft plastic six-pack rings became the scourge of the seas: Tangled in the gills of fish or wrapped around the necks of sea gulls, they symbolized the way our drinking habits could damage the planet.
Today, solid plastic PakTech four- or six-pack rings used to bundle cans, often craft beers, could be considered the modern ecological equivalent: According to one estimate, Massachusetts brewers use more than 10 million of them annually. But just 10 percent are reused, and only 2 percent recycled.
Now, thanks to a pilot program, four breweries have become collection sites for the can carriers, allowing customers to return the toppers when they pick up more beer. The sites are the Harpoon Brewery Beer Hall in South Boston, Lamplighter Brewing in Cambridge, Mighty Squirrel Brewing in Waltham, and Trillium Brewing’s Seaport and Fenway locations.
The recycling program was launched by Rob Vandenabeele, one of the longtime authors of the Mass Beer Bros. website, who is also instrumental in the Eco-Friendly Beer Drinker site, which promotes sustainability in the brewing industry. The can toppers will be picked up by GreenLabs Recycling of Waltham, which recycles biomedical plastics from labs.
Vandenabeele was inspired to start the collection program, he said, after realizing can toppers are not recyclable in Massachusetts, as they often pose problems for sorting equipment and can get tangled in machinery. He’s hoping the collection program will allow for smaller breweries to step in to sanitize and reuse the collected toppers, while the rest end up on the GreenLabs truck.
“We’re keeping them out of landfill and incineration [sites] and getting them recycled,” he said.
The effort is among several new programs brewers are exploring as they seek to make their operations more environmentally sustainable. The Northeast Grainshed Alliance aims to support grain growers to source beermaking materials closer to home so brewers won’t have to import them from the Midwest or overseas. The goal is to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and sustain local agriculture, Vandenabeele explained.
Another entrepreneur, Holden Cookson, is working with breweries to collect the spent grains that are a byproduct of brewing and bring them to farms to use as feedstock for cattle. His Cambridge company, Against the Grain, will soon begin hauling grain from places like Lamplighter, Cambridge Brewing Co., Essex Brewing Co., and Idle Hands to nearby farms.
For farmers, Cookson said, “It’s much cheaper than the cost of buying grains from the Midwest,” and the hauling fees are lower. “We’re saving farmers money and brewers money.”
Cayla Marvil, cofounder of Lamplighter, ran a can carrier recycling program but later learned the City of Cambridge had been separating them and putting them in the trash. So she’s delighted to take part in the pilot program and hopes the brewing industry is growing more cognizant of its impact on the planet, given the amount of water and energy it uses.
Marvil said she has also switched to all solar power and has only locally raised meat on the menu. She’s hoping to find a way to recapture the carbon dioxide emitted during brewing, but that would involve equipment she can’t yet afford.
“We need to talk about how to do this as an industry in a financially sustainable way,” she said.
With more than 200 breweries in Massachusetts, Vandenabeele said, it’s clear the state has an affinity for supporting local businesses — which in itself is an environmental win, because it reduces the emissions from transporting beer across the country. “We want to make it easy for breweries and implement best practices that might be more environmentally conscious,” he said.