When I was a young child, we didn’t have to worry about wildlife getting strangled by six-pack rings, because these plastic binders for cans had not been invented yet. I was 9 years old in 1961 when this simple, convenient form of packaging was invented, so I clearly remember the transition. (See Hi-Cone history.)
At the time, nobody predicted the conservation consternation that would be created by such a simple piece of plastic. During the 1970s and up to present, pictures of entrapped birds and other sea creatures became common, suggesting that we at least cut the plastic to save the animals. The first video provides a story of potential revenge.
Before the invention of six-pack rings, people bought soft drinks and beer in cardboard packages, which sort of wrapped around the cans. Pabst Blue Ribbon may have been the first beer sold in cardboard cartons (second video), although Coca Cola may have started the phase. The Coke company claims to be the first to take its bottles out of wooden crates and begin offering cardboard packaging for consumers as early as 1923.
So we went from reusable wooden crates to biodegradable cardboard to ever-lasting plastic six-pack rings, officially called “yokes” in the industry. Concern about wildlife entrapment eventually forced manufacturers of the plastic rings to use a material that would degrade when exposed to light, but degradation can be slow in a marine environment.
What really prompted me to write this piece about six-pack rings was a new invention — edible six-pack rings made of wheat and barley, the byproducts of brewing. It’s a product that “feeds animals instead of killing them,” according to a promotional video (third on this page).
Saltwater Brewing, a 3-year-old microbrewery in Delray Beach, Fla., came up with the concept and is now waiting for patent approval, according to the company website. Nowhere does the company suggest throwing these things out for the birds, but the company implies that it would not be a bad thing.
I don’t know enough about marketing to know if there is any chance of this gaining widespread acceptance. Initial reports say these new rings could raise the cost of a six pack by 10 or 15 cents, but mass production could eventually bring down the costs.
I also don’t know how these edible rings taste, and I’m not sure I want to know. But, as one the commenters said on the YouTube website, “Sweet, but if I’m REALLY hammered, can I eat it? Or will my head get stuck in the plastic like what happens to sea turtles?”
Are people really worried about six-pack rings? My wife Sue insists that I cut up any ringlike attachment devices, including those used for all sorts of juices and other products sold at Costco. I do it, knowing full well that I am going to put this plastic thing into a kitchen trash bag, which will go into a larger trash bag, which will go into a dumpster, which will eventually go into a landfill in Oregon. Not much chance to entrap a seagull.
The story would be different if I was going to take a six pack to the beach, but we normally pull the cans apart and put them into a cooler before we leave the house.
Maybe these new grain-based rings would be worthwhile for those who throw their trash at the beach. Maybe they would save the poor animals that might get trapped or eat the plastic. I’m thinking of Peanut, the turtle that grew up with a plastic ring crimping her shell. As described by Stephen Messenger of “The Dodo,” Peanut became a poster child for Missouri’s No More Trash campaign.
As an example of problems caused by plastic trash getting into the oceans, the six-pack ring may remain Public Enemy Number 1. But I tend to agree with Cecil Adams of “The Straight Dope” that a much more productive effort would be for everyone to pick up any plastic trash they see at the beach — or anywhere else — before it gets into the water. That is the same message delivered by Seattle scuba diver Laura James following our local rain and wind storms over the past week. (See video below.)
Thanks go to Kitsap Sun reporter Tristan Baurick, who offered the idea for this blog post.