Molson Coors Touts Their '99% Sustainable' Six-Pack Ring, And It Feels Like More Of The Same

by Rudy Sanchez on 07/28/2020 | 4 Minute Read

International beer conglomerate Molson Coors recently announced that 99% of their packaging is now sustainable, highlighting several efforts on multiple fronts, including responsible drinking, lessening water waste, repurposing waste, as well as a reduction in packaging. The brand now highlights its latest can carrier made by RingCycles, a six-pack ring that contains a significant percentage of post-consumer plastic and gets manufactured using less energy and water.

But how “sustainable” are some of these new efforts, and by what measure? 

With more consumers considering the environmental impact of a product when making purchasing decisions, firms large and small face pressure to produce goods as sustainably as possible, as well as communicate their green and ethical initiatives. 

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Molson Coors touts the amount of recycled plastic utilized in RingCycles, and the rings can get reused so long as your local Material Recovery Facility (MRF) accepts #4LDPE in their waste stream. If not, you can get a pre-paid shipping label from RingRecycleMe, and they'll recycle it for you. Which, again, that's really nice of them to offer, and the collection program does point to some progress by the beer giant. But how many consumers are using this option, and if most plastic ends up going back into the environment—which is almost always the case—can you really consider it sustainable?

Nearly anyone who has purchased soda or beer in the last half-century has seen the six-pack ring carrier. Invented in the late 50s, then popularized by Illinois Tool Works’ (ITW) Hi-Cone division in the early 60s, the innovation was a convenient means to carry six cans together. Of course, it didn’t take long for the contraptions to become the scourge of the ocean, and by the 1970s, the six-can ring became synonymous with how litter inflicts harm upon marine life.

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Images of trash-covered beaches and creatures like opossums and turtles getting strangled by six-pack rings caused an uproar among environmental groups and, eventually, the public, because who can tolerate seeing cute animals dying because they had a run-in with some plastic rings? 

Eventually, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a rule requiring that plastic rings degrade in the ocean. Today, the bits of plastic do indeed break down, but have we really saved plucky gulls and adorable baby turtles from choking on plastic?

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The EPA rule only mandates that plastic beverage rings merely degrade, with no specifications to any other implications of the material. Today, plastic ring carriers remain prevalent but now get designed to photodegrade, breaking the can holders into microplastics, which can later get consumed by marine life, posing a different threat to animals, including humans and other species along the food chain.

Though we’ve seen the dangers of plastic to marine life above the surface of the water, the real danger lurks underneath. Microplastics are the result of the degrading of more significant pieces that landed in the ecosystem, though they also come in the form of microfibers from clothing and microbeads. Eventually, all sorts of animals end up ingesting those tiny bits of plastic, and they can stay in the organs for some time. Naturally, a predator will end up eating one of these plastic-laden organisms, causing the material to land at the topmost levels of the food chain. What's more, these microplastics can also end up in the surrounding soil and air, eventually reaching human bodies.

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The idea of using recycled plastic is to divert that reusable material from waste and, if we can use a lot less virgin plastic, great. The less plastic we manufacture means less petroleum extraction, as well as less production-related stress on the planet. Of course, that “sustainable” change is mitigated when recycled plastic ends up in the environment and degrades into microplastic. The turtles might not get choked to death as regularly, and less oil is getting extracted and synthesized, but the threat of plastic which will take centuries to break down, remains.

Other somewhat plastic-free alternatives have emerged. For example, Carlsberg developed a method to glue cans together, negating the need for a ring holder (though it still has a soft plastic handle). Corona has started testing a biodegradable version of the six-pack carrier, a method that craft brewers Saltwater first invested in to find an environmentally-friendly replacement to plastic rings. There's even the KeelClip, a paper topper that keeps cans together, which both Coca-Cola and AB InBev trialed in Europe. 

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Oh, yeah, and then there’s cardboard.

Molson Coors is making an effort, which, on its face, is commendable, but it also shows the complexities in measuring progress around sustainability. Ultimately, it's a reminder for consumers to evaluate a brand’s environmental claims and look at the net impact that a firm’s products or operations have on the planet. Because in the end, you don't want to rely on vague, unregulated terms like “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “sustainable.”

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