Craft beer has a plastic problem. Some local breweries are finding solutions

On a recent day in Cambridge, a constant stream of aluminum cans rolled down the assembly line at Lamplighter Brewery in Cambridge, filled with a New England-style IPA. The cans move to their last stop: a device that presses plastic caps onto four cans at a time.

Standing next to the assembly line is Rob Vandenabeele, wearing a t-shirt that says “There is no planet B”. He reaches into a trash can filled with a rainbow of Lamplighter decorations and pulls out a white one.

“Plus, it’s written here, 100% recyclable,” he says. “This is true in theory, but unfortunately it is not true in the real world.”

The microbrewery is a big business in Massachusetts. Ten years ago, there were around 50 craft brewers in the state. Today, according to the craft brewer enthusiast website Mass Brew Bros., there are well over 200.

Boxes of Birds of a Feather India Pale Ale pass through the Pack Tech applicator, placing plastic brackets on each pack of 4. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

But with the expanding industry comes a growing environmental problem: Municipal recycling facilities refuse to take the plastic end caps that hold the four packages together.

Vandenabeele set out to find an in-house solution.

He has two passions: the environment and craft beer. It combines the two on its Ecofriendly Beer website, which offers “information on how the brewing industry and its consumers can be environmentally friendly on our earth, the only planet that offers craft beer.”

“My goal is to educate members of the craft beer community on how to be more environmentally conscious when it comes to consumption,” says Vandenabeele, who has visited nearly every craft brewery in Massachusetts and many of the more than 600 microbreweries in New England. “Or, on the brewing side, how to be a more environmentally conscious business.”

Vandenabeele estimates that Massachusetts brewers use 10 million plastic beer caps per year; nationwide, brewers use more than a billion. New England’s microbreweries are using their fair share: Nationally, Vermont is the number one state for breweries per capita. Maine and New Hampshire are also in the top 10.

Lamplighter installed the topper machine a few months ago, says co-founder Cayla Marvil.

“We have a lot of equipment, a lot of tanks and we produce a lot of beer,” she says. “We’re big enough for a small craft brewery. “

Founded just five years ago, Lamplighter today produces 6,000 barrels of beer, 60% of which is used in can manufacturing. That’s a lot of beer, and a lot of toppers.

“The toppers are recyclable, but they are not recyclable under the city’s recycling program. Which was news for us,” said Marvil.

Gretchen Carey, president of statewide nonprofit MassRecycle, says the problem with toppers is they’re flat.

“They’re pretty much two-dimensional,” says Carey. “They will be sorted in paper, not plastic, which is not what everyone wants.”

“The toppers are recyclable, but they are not recyclable through the city’s recycling program. Which was new to us.”

Cayla marvil

Plastic mattress toppers contaminate paper packages, making them unsaleable. Thus, the recycling ends up in landfills or incinerators.

But Carey might have a solution. She recently co-founded a company – GreenLabs Recycling – which manages clean but irregularly shaped plastic waste from another industry: biotechnology.

For a fee, GreenLabs Recycling picks up the plastic, delivers it to a special processor, and it’s then made into laundry detergent cans, Adirondack chairs, and other items. Carey says their pilot program has been “a huge success.”

Last May, Vandenabeele asked local Boston breweries Harpoon, Trillium and Lamplighter to set up collection barrels so customers can return their toppers for pickup by GreenLabs.

“Almost 50% return to breweries,” he says. “30% of that 50% is reused. So we have increased the rate of reuse and recycling.”

Ecofriendly Beer has an interactive map where you can find breweries that accept returned toppers. Bone up Brewing in Everett even pays customers a dollar a dozen for used toppers if they’re a color that matches their cans.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of customers bring back the toppings, which is super cool and really appreciated,” said Marvil of Lamplighter Brewery. “Easy peasy.”

The small assembly line that can

There’s a catch: Plastic mattress toppers are made from climate-disrupting fossil fuels.

Both Carey and Vandenabeele say it’s better to reuse toppers or reprocess plastic than to turn them into waste, but agree there is a better way. And several small New England breweries have found it.

Tim Little is a traveling beer shooter from New Hampshire. His mobile canning business, State 64, travels across New England, serving small craft brewers too small to have their own canning business, like Gentile Brewing Company in Beverly, where nine cans at a time come out of. its portable assembly line.

Today is a very small draw, ”says Little, holding up a box of Gentile’s new seasonal Squash Porter. “It’s as small as it gets right now… we’re doing 50 cases.

Microbrewery owner Paul Gentile says canning saved his nano-brewery when COVID-19 forced him to close his beer bar.

We had a bunch of beers in tanks that we couldn’t serve on draft, ”he says,“ so we designed a bunch of labels, started throwing beer in cans and selling it through the cans. tap room windows. “

Little told Gentile about a new type of beer can topper made in Mexico called E6PR. They are molded from agricultural waste, fibers left in the fields. The toppers are deposit free and all return to the ground.

A Stack of E6PR Beer Carrier Rings is the world's first eco-friendly six-pack ring made from waste fiber by-products.  (Jesse Costa / WBUR)
A Stack of E6PR Beer Carrier Rings is the world’s first eco-friendly six-pack ring made from waste fiber by-products. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

Little invented a device for quickly stamping E6PR toppers onto cans, making it the small assembly line that can. He says interest in compostable toppers has grown and seven of his area craft breweries have switched from plastic to E6PR, including Island Dog in Maine, To Share Brewing in New Hampshire, Hogback in Vermont and Gentile in Beverly.

We decided that we were going to switch to these compostable models, ”says Gentile. “They are more concerned with the environment; they are more environmentally friendly.

They are also more expensive. E6PR toppers add about eight cents to a pack of four. But Gentile has decided not to pass this on to his clients.

“It’s the cost of doing globally conscious business,” he says. “If everyone felt they had to do this, I think we would be in a much better place for the environment.”

Paul Gentile and Caroline LeBlanc of Gentile Brewing in Beverly watch State 64 owner Tim Little adjust a beer rack.  (Jesse Costa / WBUR)
Paul Gentile and Caroline LeBlanc of Gentile Brewing in Beverly watch State 64 owner Tim Little adjust a beer rack. (Jesse Costa / WBUR)

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