These Breweries Are Taking Eco-Friendly Packaging to a New Level

Stackable six-packs, biodegradable holders, reusable bottles, and more.

Sustainable beer packaging
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

From growing their own hops and adjunct ingredients to donating spent grain to local farmers to converting their facilities to 100% renewable energy, breweries the world over have been making impressive strides toward environmental sustainability. And it’s a veritable win-win. According to a 2018 study by Indiana University Bloomington's School of Public and Environmental Affairs, a majority of the 1,000 consumers surveyed reported they were more than happy to shell out an additional $1.30 per six-pack on average for a more sustainable brew. And between limiting energy expenses, creating closed-loop production processes, and the space-saving power of switching from glass bottles to crushable aluminum cans, many eco-minded implementations double as money saving measures for breweries, as well.

That’s why some enterprising companies have recently been shifting their sights from the big picture greenification methods to tackling a physically smaller yet ironically much more pressing problem: eliminating excess waste and bio-hazards caused by traditional beer packaging. Contrary to what all those ’90s PSAs would have you believe, simply snipping your plastic sixer ring to shreds before tossing it in the can does little to keep it from enticing unknowing ocean creatures or clogging up landfills for eons to come. It’s the plastic, those little indestructible chemical-laden strands, that’s the real enemy. 

“The goal was to develop a biodegradable product that was able to replace a ubiquitous single use plastic one, and six-pack rings were high on the list,” says Jorge Reynoso, CEO and co-founder of E6PR. Headquartered in Mexico, E6PR has been designing and manufacturing zero-waste packaging since 2017, including a game-changing six-pack ring made entirely of compostable agricultural byproducts. “We wanted to prove that there are solutions to replace single-use plastics, and we only needed innovation to develop them.”

E6PR packaging
Courtesy of E6PR

E6PR’s six-pack ring eschews both plastics as well as oil derivatives and other synthetic binding elements in favor of a host of nontoxic biodegradable raw materials including natural fibers discarded in everyday food and beverage production. If discarded properly, these can-holders can be broken down and transformed into fertilizer to grow new crops. After whipping up their first prototype using a 3D-printed mold and standard home oven, E6PR went on to perfect their invention. A half-dozen awards and a burst of media attention soon followed, and as expected, breweries all over the world began to line up to work with the company.

“Today, our product is being used by approximately 300 beverage producers in 25 countries,” Reynoso continues, mentioning deals with giants like Corona, Molson Coors, and Heineken, among a sea of micro operations like Maine’s lager-focused Nu Brewery, SaltWater Brewery in Florida, and Massachusetts spots Redemption Rock Brewing Co. and Altruist Brewing. “The big companies have a great positive impact in terms of volume, but the small companies can go a very long way in raising environmental awareness throughout their consumer base in various markets, so we are definitely targeting both.”

E6PR isn’t the only game in town. Oregon-based PakTech has been cranking out a variety of can-holders and other beverage handles made from 100% recycled hard plastic since 2012. The company’s eye-catching designs are made from repurposed milk jugs, and, according to its website, the manufacturing process results in a 78% dip in greenhouse gas emissions, uses 90% less energy, and reduces virgin petroleum production by 100% as compared to standard packaging plants. Not only that, but the handles themselves are in turn recyclable—PakTech has partnered with hundreds of businesses to set up tailored recycling sites to ensure the little colorful loops and caps get the future they deserve.“Effectively, the most important message is that these handles add nothing to the waste stream,” Central U.S. and Eastern Canada territory sales manager Mike Seestadt explained in a filmed presentation at the Craft Brewers Conference in 2018. “They come from recycled resin, they’re remanufactured into new products and then if they’re fully recycled, there’s zero impact on the environment.”

Carlsberg packaging
Courtesy of Carlsberg

Alternatively, some breweries are taking sustainable packaging into their own hands. Denmark’s Carlsberg made waves in October 2019 when it unveiled a prototype called the “Green Fibre Bottle.” The exterior is constructed with sustainably sourced wood fiber, giving way to a thin coat of bio-based PEF (or polyethylene furanoate) film lining inside. If brought to fruition, the curious vessel represents the first 100% plant-based and fully recyclable bottle to ever hit the global market. In the meantime, the European frontrunner continues to champion a bounty of ongoing eco-conscious initiatives including recycled shrink wrapping, environmentally friendly labeling, and Snap Pack, a proprietary system that secures six-packs using an adhesive as opposed to plastic rings.

In Maryland, the U.S. arm of legendary stout specialists Guinness is also doing its part. A representative from booze powerhouse Diageo, Guinness’ parent company, shared that in 2019, the Irish icons announced that all Baltimore-brewed, limited-release cans would come in fully compostable and biodegradable carriers. Later that year, Guinness took the promise a step further by outfitting its entire canned fleet in those same multi-pack carriers, replacing pesky plastic rings with sturdy, easily-broken down cardboard. 

Even breweries without multinational financial backing are finding ways to fight the perils of plastic. In addition to the microbreweries using E6PR’s eco-rings, here are just a few of the many craft breweries currently stepping up to the plate in an attempt to knock environmentally detrimental packaging straight out of the park.

Straub packaging
Courtesy of Straub

St. Marys, Pennsylvania

Despite being one of the state’s oldest family-run breweries, this Pennsylvania operation holds some pretty forward-thinking ideas when it comes to sustainability. In 2016, Straub took home the “Leadership in Reusable Packaging” award from the Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC) in recognition of the Pounder, a 16-ounce refillable bottle that harnesses traditions of the past to shape a greener future. The 149-year-old stalwart cuts down on material waste by selling its suds in these stately glass vessels, each of which are then returned to the brewery for a trip through the commercial bottle washing machine before being filled once again with tasty American lager, light lager, or amber lager once again. According to Straub’s website, a single one of its Pounders can withstand a five to ten year lifecycle before retiring. The addition of reusable cardboard cases made from hand-stitched military grade solid fiberboard, themselves capable of five to ten exchanges before heading off to the recycling bin, seals the deal.

Missoula, Montana

This German-influenced Montana outpost took a page out of Straub’s book when it introduced its own reusable bottle initiative in 2010, retrofitting the concept to give it sturdier grounding in the local community through their EcoLeague program. To join, EcoLeague members put down a $3 deposit and in return are handed a Bayern Ecopack, a wax-lined box specially designed to fit the brewery’s packaging equipment plus the option to cram it full of 24 refillable 12-ounce glass bottles nestled in four six-pack carriers. Weizen, Bock, and Pilsener fans are then rewarded with five cents credit for each drained bottle as well as 10 cents for each cardboard carrier returned in good shape. What’s more, recycling hopefuls aren’t limited to Bayern’s own stock. As long as they meet the brewery’s requirements—12-ounce brown glass, no twist-off lids, no embossing, no sticker residue—any old bottle qualifies. 

Portland, Maine

A longtime leader in all things sustainability, this Belgian-style craft pioneer’s noble efforts range from purchasing carbon offsets for shipped webstore orders and installing a fleet of solar panels in 2015 to pledging to use one million pounds of locally harvested and processed grain by the end of this year. In terms of packaging, Allagash collects old corks and donates them to ReCork where they end up serving as shoes, yoga blocks, and other repurposed creations. The Portland brewery also accepts and recycles used wire cages from its large-format bottles and reuse as much packaging material (think: foam peanuts, air pillows, bubblewrap) as they can.  

More recently, Allagash has organized and built a collaborative recycling co-op aimed at addressing the .2% of waste they so far have been unable to reuse, sidestream, or otherwise eliminate. Neighboring breweries like Bissell Brothers, Foundation, and Maine Beer Company have agreed to drop off their own used shrink wrap, grain bags, six-pack holders, metal caps, cages, corks, and other refuse at the co-op in order to ensure the materials get recycled property and efficiently.

Boulder, Colorado

This Colorado frontrunner is all about protecting and preserving the wild natural landscape that inspires so many of its award-winning IPAs, pilsners, stouts, kettle sours, lagers, specialty seasonals, and spiked seltzers. These eye-catching cans come secured in photodegradable six-pack rings produced by packaging solutions company Hi-Cone. Made with 30% less material than the standard, the rings are also built specifically to avoid damage to any animals they might encounter and fit #4 LDPE recycling parameters. To boot, Upslope recycles all plastic wrap, reuses all intact pallets, and even goes the extra mile by making sure all the cardboard they use hails from responsibly-managed and legal forests by obtaining certification from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative

Charlton, Massachusetts

A quiet leader in the field, this New England cult favorite has managed to build and maintain its stellar reputation without the use of any plastic packaging whatsoever. Tree House has been peddling its expansive and much-coveted lineup of unbelievably juicy IPAs, boundary-pushing stouts, and other hearty ales by the caseload in recyclable supply boxes and unadorned cardboard flats from the jump, avoiding the need for six-pack rings, shrink wrap, or any other environmentally adverse materials. It might not sound like much, but considering Tree House’s ever-growing output and widely expanded five-facility operation, this steadfast dedication to keeping things simple and plastic-free has undoubtedly made an impact.

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Meredith Heil is a former freelancer, former-former Staff Writer, and current Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist. She refuses to be a role model—she sets goals, takes control, drinks out her own (reusable) bottles. Follow her @mereditto.