Craft Beer’s Plastic Problem

Landfills like this are where recyclable six-pack holders are ending up // Photo via Pexels

Landfills like this are where recyclable six-pack holders are ending up // Photo via Pexels

Why six-pack holders are ending up in the trash even if you recycle them

Minnesota’s growing craft beer industry not only provides lots of new taprooms to visit, but also more local beer options when you shop at the liquor store. Instead of going to the taproom to fill up a growler, consumers can now regularly find a four- or six-pack of cans from their favorite local brewer.

But canning is a huge leap for a small brewery, and the main hurdle is the cost. For Bad Weather Brewing, the price tag was around $250,000 just for the canning line. To help defray that cost a touch, they turned to a packaging solution that gave them greater flexibility: hard plastic PakTech “handles.” Rather than invest hundreds of thousands of dollars more in automated packaging equipment, the PakTech handles allow a brewery to hand-package beer in several different formats. This person-powered strategy has meant breweries can scale their distribution to match their overall growth.

“The canning line was a huge purchase for us,” Joe Giambruno, co-founder of Bad Weather Brewing, explains. “And it’s literally me sitting in the back with cans putting the PakTechs on. That’s what is so nice—you don’t need another piece of equipment.”

The PakTech handles aren’t just functional. Many of the plastic handles—though somewhat hard to pull a beer from the first time you use them—are made with incredibly high levels of post-consumer recycled plastics (PCR). Mario Serra, director of sales and marketing for PakTech, says since the product was first used by Maui Brewing in 2008, it’s really taken off.

“The product really does three things,” explains Serra. “It solves the issue of how to package the product. It solves the issue of how to display the product in point of purchase environments. We offer an option to people where we say, ‘Look, you already have a beautiful can with nice bright colors and outstanding visual elements, why would you reproduce all that on a piece of cardboard that is going to be thrown away?’” The product has a functionality that helps small brewers, but the fact that it uses a recycled source material also helps brewers maintain a commitment to the environment in an industry that uses tremendous amounts of water and energy.

In short, the product seems a perfect fit for brewers focused on sustainability. The problem? PakTech handles can’t actually be recycled in Minnesota.

Illustration by DWITT

Illustration by DWITT

When it comes to recycling, there are two factors to consider for any given product. First is the material itself. In the case of PakTech handles, they are made from recycled plastic milk jugs and are as high as 100 percent PCR—meaning the product itself is made entirely from products that were recycled. But in this case, the material isn’t the problem.

“They are a highly desirable material that is eminently recyclable,” said Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers.

The other factor that impacts how you recycle any given product is its design. In order to make the process easier for residents, many communities now collect all different types of recycling in a single bin—single-stream recycling. It means families can throw all their newspaper, pop cans, milk jugs, and cardboard in the same bin. But it also means the companies that process those recyclables have to engineer a way to separate them at the recycling facility in order to sell those PCR materials to a company like PakTech, for instance, who buys used milk jugs to creates handles to hold beer cans.

Designing, engineering, and building the processing facilities to handle such a complicated task is incredibly expensive. Picture a dumpster of recyclables being dumped onto a conveyor belt. As the material runs through the processing facility, an incredibly complex system separates each and every kind of material. Beams of light run across falling items and if they react just right, a puff of air will blow plastic bottles into a certain area. Items might run across a filter made up of sharp metal screens so that light objects like paper can be separated from heavier materials. Something like the cardboard that held a 12-pack of beer is easy to recycle because facilities are built to process it. But for example, if people had always been brewing coffee using paper filters, then a new product that uses small plastic cups filled with coffee grounds could severely disrupt a recycling process that was designed before they became popular. Or, say, if the craft brewing industry expanded so quickly that a new, sustainably-sourced handle for four- and six-packs of beer became the market standard without too much consideration for whether most processing facilities could actually recycle it.

“The only way this [PakTech handle] could get recycled is if someone would take the time to separate it from all other materials,” explained Julie Ketchum, director of government affairs for Waste Management. “But I doubt that that happens.”

Paktech's cause enough problems at Minnesota's recycling facilities that they are more often than not thrown in the trash // GIF, The Growler

Paktech’s cause enough problems at Minnesota’s recycling facilities that they are more often than not thrown in the trash // GIF, The Growler

Serra with PakTech would argue that this is no different than any other industry. “It’s either do they [recycling facilities] invest in the machinery required, or do they simply say ‘No, you can’t recycle it.’”

Eureka Recycling, a Minneapolis-based zero-waste organization that processes recyclable materials believes that kind of thinking is inherently flawed.

“That the recyclers, which means the communities that contract with recyclers, need to pay to deal with the products that a company is designing is kind of a fundamental flaw in our system in general,” explained Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Eureka. “There’s very little producer responsibility in the United States. Most other countries require a producer of material to design something to either fit within the current recycling system or have some kind of financial responsibility in dealing with the product they are putting out into the world.”

Those global dynamics are carried throughout the recycling market. Because China is the largest single purchaser of recycled materials for many processors, their standards tend to shift the market. And as they push for greater and greater purity of the products they procure, any material that creates challenges within the recycling process poses a risk. Waste Management shuts down their facility for 20 minutes three times a day to hand-remove problem products—like plastic produce bags and, yes, PakTech handles—from their filters just to prevent more serious issues. This slows down production and reduces the efficiency of the process for all recyclables.

For their part, both Waste Management and Eureka Recycling strongly urge customers not to put PakTech handles into your recycling bin. They say the product will either cause delays because they need to be removed or they’ll cause contamination because they end up being processed with paper or other non-plastics. And if they are found during the recycling process, they’ll simply be thrown away because there is no way to process and reuse those materials based on existing processing methods.

Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth believes the recycling processor used by their local hauler can recycle the product. But even if they can’t, Laura Mullen, Bent Paddle co-founder and vice president for marketing and outreach, is proud to be using a product like Paktech that was produced using high levels of recyclable material, even if it can’t be recycled again. Because that sustainable sourcing is important to them.

“That is a better environmental impact.”

If breweries or customers don’t want to risk it with their local provider and are searching for a place to send their old PakTech handles, Serra has a simple suggestion.

“Bring them to us,” Serra says. “And to breweries who want to do more to recycle, I would suggest that they do the same thing.”