If you walk into a Whole Foods in North Miami, Florida, and buy a six-pack of Screamin’ Reels IPA from SaltWater Brewery–a craft microbrewery from Delray Beach up the coast–you’ll notice something different about the packaging. Instead of the standard plastic six-pack ring, the cans are topped with a paperlike holder.
The brewery is the first to test packaging from a startup called E6PR (originally short for the “edible six-pack ring,” and now the “eco six-pack ring.”) Plastic six-pack rings are known for trapping and strangling wildlife or being mistaken for food. The new ring, which is biodegradable and compostable, will eventually break down if it’s littered outside or in the water. If an animal eats it, the material won’t harm its digestive system.
The design, which was initially introduced as a concept in 2016, took time to bring to market. “Bringing the product to the level of performance that we have right now was really challenging,” says Francisco Garcia, COO at E6PR. Engineers went through multiple iterations of prototypes to create something sturdy enough to work in each step of the process, from packaging machines and warehouses to shipping and retail shelves.
The current version is made from wheat and barley. A sample sent by the company feels surprisingly strong. Technically, you could eat it, though you wouldn’t want to because it could be contaminated on its journey to a retail store. (It also wouldn’t taste good; one founder says it would be similar to “a very, very stale cookie.”) But the materials mean that it can readily degrade, unlike plastic. The next version, which will be produced at a factory that will soon open in Mexico, will include by-product waste from making beer. Because that by-product could vary depending on the brewery it comes from, the new version will require additional testing. The company wanted to launch with something that it knew would work.
“One of the things that we really learned fast as you go into scaling something is that you have one chance for the product to perform in the channel,” says Marco Vega, cofounder at We Believers, an ad agency that worked with Mexico-based engineering firm Entelequia to create the packaging and create the startup to produce it.
After the packaging proves itself in the current real-life tests with SaltWater Brewery in various stores throughout Florida, the company will begin fulfilling orders to other craft breweries. The startup is also testing the product with a large beer manufacturer, which uses equipment that has to be able to apply rings much faster than a craft brewer. “For Big Beer, it’s really about making sure that we can not only produce the E6PRs, but also apply them at the speed that those lines require,” says Vega.
E6PR hopes to make similar rings for soda and other packaged drinks. If it can prove the packaging works and can compete on price, it could eventually replace plastic rings completely.
The company is one of several to tackle the problem of ocean plastic. The winners of the Circular Materials Challenge, announced at Davos today, include a new compostable material made partly from food waste that can be used to package granola bars, chips, and laundry detergent, and another multilayer material made from agricultural and forest waste that can be used to package products like rice. More solutions are likely to come, as plastic waste becomes an increasingly visible problem: More than 8 million tons of plastic enter oceans every year.