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Microbrewery’s edible six-pack rings create eco-friendly alternative to plastic

A turtle mutilated by a traditional plastic six-pack ring. Though discarded plastic six-pack rings are not plentiful in the ocean, they do cause problems when they end up there.
A turtle mutilated by a traditional plastic six-pack ring. Though discarded plastic six-pack rings are not plentiful in the ocean, they do cause problems when they end up there.
(Saltwater Brewery / We Believers)

A brewery has come up with an idea to save sea life and reduce the amount of plastic waste floating in our oceans.

Saltwater Brewery, along with New York City-based ad agency We Believers, developed edible six-pack rings made of the wheat and barley remnants left over from making beer.

And it all started with garbage.

We Believers co-founders Marco Vega and Gustavo Lauria were working on a production shoot. After the crew ate lunch, Lauria looked around and realized how much plastic trash they’d managed to produce from a single meal.

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They thought about doing something traditional, maybe an awareness campaign. Instead, they decided to create a product that would take the responsibility off the consumer by not using any plastic in the first place. They set their sights on six-pack rings.

Vega and Lauria connected with Chris Gove, the president and co-founder of Saltwater Brewery. Originally, Lauria had envisioned six-pack rings made of dried seaweed, but the potential environmental impact made that idea untenable.

So the trio turned to something Gove had in abundance: wheat and barley remnants left over from the brewing process.

Just two months after that fateful, wasteful lunch, they manufactured 500 working prototypes using a 3-D printer and produced and published a video showing off their creation.

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It quickly got picked up around the Internet; a cut of the video shared by NowThis News has garnered more than 54 millions views, and a GIF of it made the front page of Imgur.

The video alleges that “most of the plastic six-pack rings used end up in the ocean.” That’s not entirely true, but the biodegradable rings are still a good idea, according to Jennifer Brandon, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on marine debris.

There’s definitely a plastic problem in the ocean: Most of what she and other marine biologists find in the water is made of it, but the plastic pieces are a quarter of an inch long or smaller — too small to figure out exactly what they used to be. Six-pack rings do frequently make appearances in campaigns about the plight of plastic in the oceans since they have such a dramatic effect on the animals who get entangled in them.

“Six-pack rings aren’t the main problem, but they’re a symbol of the problem,” Brandon said. “Anything that can solve a problem at the consumer end is a good thing.” Since the rings are made of biodegradable materials, if they end up where they should — a landfill — they will  decompose faster, which makes them more eco-friendly.

Six-pack rings aren’t the main problem, but they’re a symbol of the problem.
Jennifer Brandon, marine biology graduate student

Brandon said  confirm that even though wheat and barley aren’t the diet staples of marine life, they were safe for animals to eat. Certainly safer than consuming plastic or even cardboard, which doesn’t biodegrade as quickly as food waste. Vega said they’re planning more testing to make sure the rings won’t have an adverse effect on animals.

As of right now, you can’t buy a six-pack encircled with the specialty rings outside of Saltwater Brewery. The next step for the team is to build a hydraulic mold that can handle making 200,000 units a month. At that point, Saltwater Brewery will be able to use the rings on all of the beers they make.

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A Saltwater Brewery six-pack with edible rings.
A Saltwater Brewery six-pack with edible rings.
(Saltwater Brewery / We Believers )

In 2017, they’re looking to partner with other microbreweries to expand the use of the technology. (A patent application is in the pipeline in Mexico, where the prototypes were manufactured.) At that point, the cost could drop down to 10 to 15 cents per six-pack ring, which is comparable to what it costs to manufacture the plastic version.

The rings are made entirely from what’s left over when the beer is brewed. Vega said adding corn or sugar cane might make the final product more sturdy, but that would come at an environmental cost.

“We feel truthful about finding a solution to use ways to reduce the carbon footprint, and that’s to use byproducts of the beer processing as it exists right now,” he said.

If sea animals can eat it, can humans?

“We’ve all eaten it,” Vega said, laughing. So far, they’ve all tried it and survived, though it may not hit the shelves as a snack any time soon: “It does taste like cardboard.”

Tell Jessica what plastic product you’d reinvent on Twitter @jessica_roy.

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