Dozens of Chicago-area craft breweries are teaming up to help eliminate the plastic waste issue caused by millions of beer can carriers. Modeled on recent efforts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, where hundreds of thousands of can carriers have been rescued and reused, the Chicagoland Can Carrier Reuse and Recycling Co-op has the potential to prevent millions of the rigid plastic carriers from a wasteful single-use destiny.
The Co-op will awareness in the craft beer community that the plastic carriers holding many of their favorite beverages often end up in landfill – even when they’re tossed in the recycling bin. As a result, participating breweries are encouraging consumers to bring them back to be reused or properly recycled.
“People think they’re doing the right thing when they drop them in their single-stream recycling bins, but because recycling centers have difficulty processing them, they might be doing more harm than good,” says Alex Parker, founder of Craft for Climate, a Chicago-based organization that’s coordinating the co-op effort. “We want breweries and consumers to know that there’s a better way.”
The Reusiverse, a successful reduce-reuse-recycle model, will soon debut in and around Chicago.
Despite being marketed as “100% recyclable” by manufacturers, most plastic can carriers end up in the waste stream after just one use. It’s an unfortunate reality that has frustrated the environmentally conscious craft brewing industry for some time, mostly because pitching them into curbside recycling bins is actually part of the problem. In the Chicago area alone, it’s estimated that more than 10 million can carriers are in circulation annually. Less than 10% of them end up getting reused or recycled.*
Like almost all plastic packaging, snap-on can carriers (sometimes called holders, handles or toppers) are incompatible with sorting equipment. As a result, they get rejected at material recovery facilities (MRFs) and sent to landfill, which has negative impacts on the environment.
So far, more than two dozen breweries and bottle shops in the Chicago area have joined the co-op, including Half Acre Beer, Temperance Brewing, Art History, Midwest Coast, Une Anne/Hubbard’s Cave, and Orange and Brew, pledging to collect and reuse the durable packaging. Participating locations are listed on an interactive map.
Half Acre (Chicago), Temperance (Evanston), Heartland Beverage (St. Charles) and recycling education organization SCARCE (Addison) will serve as collection hubs, where participating businesses can bring excess, damaged or otherwise unusable discards to be properly recycled. Additionally, distributor Heartland Beverage has agreed to provide logistical support by picking up and delivering collected carriers to destinations along their existing distribution routes. Craft for Climate has also partnered with the Resource Center, a recycling pioneer in the city of Chicago for more than 45 years, to sidestep the troublesome single-stream sorting difficulty.
“What’s clear from discussions with breweries and other retailers is that businesses want a sustainable solution when it comes to packaging their products. Reusing can carriers over and over, which also saves businesses money, is one of the best ways to accomplish that,” says EcoFriendlyBeer.com founder Rob Vandenabeele. “The final piece of the puzzle is keeping them out of the waste stream at the end of their useful life through a separate-stream collection service.”
The co-op, which launches in conjunction with Illinois Craft Beer Week, is the result of months of planning and collaboration between Parker, sustainable candle entrepreneur Adam Dickens, and Vandenabeele, who has successfully organized similar efforts in New England.
Given the proliferation of plastic production, the importance of establishing successful reuse schemes to combat its negative environmental impacts has never been greater. The Chicagoland effort hopes to reduce the need for new carriers by allowing the ones already in circulation to be used over and over again. It’s difficult to calculate precisely, but creating a market for reusing them prevents unnecessary energy use to manufacture new ones, decreases greenhouse gas emissions associated with additional deliveries, and spares wildlife harm from entanglement or microplastic ingestion that can occur when plastic packaging isn’t properly disposed of.
“We think this program can really make a difference, and we think it’s replicable across Illinois and other places,” Parker says. “If you’re a brewery or bottle shop that wants to get involved than go ahead and start collecting carriers. It’s the first step toward addressing the problem.”