Carlsberg cuts back on plastic
Despite the fact that they only make up a tiny fraction of all waste in the ocean, the plastic rings which hold cans together get a lot of bad press. Much like plastic straws which also constitute only the tiniest amount of ocean waste, the outsized reaction to the pollution created by plastic rings is perhaps a side-effect of the many images we can find of photogenic turtles trapped in them.
The serious, big ocean polluters are, as always, the largest and richest corporations – the industrial giants, the chemical companies, the fossil fuel power providers. In the same way as only 100 companies around the world are responsible for more than 70% of all carbon emissions, a very small number of companies – and therefore individuals – can be definitively blamed for the mass pollution of our oceans. However in our globalised economy it is beyond the power of most to meaningfully affect the giant destructive forces of capitalism, and so we try to fix what we can.
Plastic rings were only introduced in the 1960s but are now ubiquitous around the world. Experts were calling for them to be banned as early as the 1970s due to the adverse effects on wildlife. Nowadays a top of the line plastic ring machine can package up 2,400 cans a minute. Even where regulations exist to make plastic rings less harmful companies have found ways around it. For instance the USA has insisted since 1994 that all plastic rings must be “degradable”. Many manufacturers choose to meet this standard by making their plastics photodegradable rather than biodegradable, meaning that their products degrade in sunlight. On the surface this sounds fine, but in reality all it achieves is to break the plastic rings into smaller pieces of plastic which create a ‘plastic soup’ in the ocean.
40 years later we are only just beginning to explore alternatives which are compostable when discarded and edible for marine life, rather than fatal. The latest positive move comes from Carlsberg.
The Danish company has recognised that plastic rings are not at all necessary and been moved by public pressure to find a different way of packaging their products. Rather than having a large set of plastic rings around cans, the company has developed an adhesive which is strong enough to hold cans together but weak enough to be easily pulled apart by customers. The cans will still have a small piece of plastic to act as a handle, but overall this is a significant reduction which the company claims will save 1,322 tons of plastic every year.
Even though this is an admirable move it is worth emphasising that Carlsberg has not managed to eliminate its plastic ring waste footprint entirely, and the company has seemingly dismissed truly biodegradable alternatives – after all, the new glue is still a pollutant, if a lesser one. In addition, whilst the saving of more than 1,300 tons of plastic annually is good, it does not really scratch the surface of the more than eight million tonnes of plastic which are put into the ocean each year.
Still, in times like these where good environmental news is sparse, we can say well done to Carlsberg, note that the environmental trend is only going one way whether the biggest polluters like it or not, and hope that other companies follow suit and try to outdo this in the future.