Chris Gove loves the ocean so much, he named his brewery after it. Gove, who opened Saltwater Brewing in 2013 with four childhood friends, is an avid surfer and devotee of all things aquatic, including marine life.
The problem? Selling six-packs of beer meant producing a lot of plastic waste…
…which all too frequently finds its way into the sea.
That didn’t sit right with Gove and his cofounders, who decided to make ocean conservation part of Saltwater Brewing’s mission from the very beginning. “The jewel of Florida is the ocean, so we all grew up seeing tar and different plastic on the beach and when we’re surfing and fishing we’ll catch plastic bags, and it’s horrible,” Gove told.
Enter the edible six-pack ring.
The rings, which Saltwater codeveloped with a New York-based ad agency, are made of spent grain leftover from the brewing process, much of which would otherwise go to waste.
The company is still perfecting the design but were encouraged by the successful production and testing of 500 prototypes last month. The rings are designed to be disposed of, but should they find their way into the ocean, they can be eaten safely by marine life.
Wait a sec, you might be thinking, “I haven’t heard squat about plastic six-pack rings in forever. Didn’t we solve this problem in, like, the ’80s?” Only sort of. In 1988, alarmed by reports of fish, sea birds, and turtles becoming ensnared by the rings, Congress passed a law requiring all plastic ring carriers (the industry term for those six-pack thingies) to be naturally degradable. Most are now manufactured to be photodegradable (meaning they split into tiny pieces when exposed to prolonged sunlight). It’s not a perfect solution. According to one major manufacturer, their plastic carriers take — at best — between three and four weeks to break down. But it does mostly solve the problem of animals getting trapped.
The problem now is, even after the rings break apart, the pieces can still be ingested by sea life — and wreak some major havoc.
A 2014 study, published in the journal Science, found that 99% percent of the plastic waste that should be in the ocean based on the most accurate available estimates — including those little tiny six-pack ring pieces — is missing, most likely because marine animals have eaten it.
“Turtles and certain fish eat jellyfish, and a lot of times balloons or pieces of plastic or plastic bags in the ocean can look like jellyfish,” Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist at the University of Miami, told. According to Hammerschlag, consuming discarded plastic can lead to serious injury — or even be a death sentence — for the animals that do so. Worse yet, discarded plastic often leeches toxic chemicals like mercury and DDT from the ocean, which then filter up the food chain, causing health problems for the larger sea creatures — and, ultimately, humans — that eat them.
Saltwater’s prototype rings could be far better than the alternative.
“I think it could be very beneficial,” Hammerschlag said. He believes that the less plastic that makes its way into the stomachs of fish, sea turtles, and sharks, the better — even if the material doesn’t represent an ideal diet for those creatures.
“It’s kind of like having a Sour Patch Kid,” Gove said. “You’d rather have your kid eat a Sour Patch Kid than a Lego. That’s kind of how I see it.”
Gove hopes that, should the project succeed, other breweries — even major ones — will eventually follow Saltwater’s lead.
Once the design is perfected, the brewery plans to run off thousands more of the rings in the next stage of development.
“We really want to inspire the whole industry and all beverage, all styles of packaging too,” Gove said. “This is just the beginning.”
It’s a move that could earn Saltwater the gratitude of thousands of happy, unexpectedly satiated sea creatures.