On a recent day in Cambridge, a steady stream of aluminum cans move down the assembly line at Lamplighter Brewery in Cambridge, being filled with a New England Style IPA. The cans move to their last stop: a device that presses plastic toppers onto four cans at a time.
Standing next to the assembly line is Rob Vandenabeele, wearing a T-shirt that reads "There is no Planet B." He reaches into a bin filled with a rainbow of Lamplighter toppers, and pulls out a white one.
"On the top it says here, 100% recyclable," he says. "It’s true in theory but it’s not true in the real world, unfortunately.”
Microbrewing is a big business in Massachusetts. Ten years ago there were about 50 craft brewers in the state. Today, according to the craft-brewery-enthusiast website Mass Brew Bros, there are well over 200.
But the expanding industry comes with a growing environmental problem: although the familiar PakTech plastic toppers are made from 100% recycled content, and are indeed recyclable, many municipal recycling facilities refuse to take them.
Vandenabeele has set out to find a home-grown solution.
He has two passions: the environment and craft beer. He combines both on his website Ecofriendly Beer, which offers "insights on how the brewing industry and its consumers can be environmentally mindful of our earth, the only planet with craft beer."
"My goal is to educate people in the craft beer community on how to be more environmentally conscious about consumption," says Vandenabeele, who has visited almost all the craft breweries in Massachusetts, and many of the 600-plus microbreweries across New England. "Or, from the brewing side, how to be a more eco-conscious business."
Vandenabeele estimates that Massachusetts brewers use 10 million plastic beer toppers a year; nationwide, brewers use over a billion. New England microbreweries use their fair share: nationwide, Vermont is the number one state for breweries per capita. Maine and New Hampshire are also in the top 10.
Lamplighter installed the topper machine a few months ago, says co-founder Cayla Marvil.
"We have a lot of equipment, a lot of tanks and are producing a lot of beer," she says. "We’re fairly large for a smaller craft brewery."
Founded just five years ago, Lamplighter now produces 6,000 barrels of beer, and 60% of that goes into cans. It's a lot of beer, and a lot of toppers.
"The toppers are recyclable, but they’re not recyclable through the city’s recycling program, which was news to us," Marvil says.
Gretchen Carey, president of the state-wide nonprofit MassRecycle, says the problem with toppers is they're flat.
"They’re pretty much two-dimensional," Carey says. "They’ll get sorted into the paper, not into the plastic, which is not what anyone wants."
"The toppers are recyclable, but they’re not recyclable thru the city’s recycling program. Which was news to us."Cayla Marvil
The plastic toppers contaminate paper bundles, making them unsellable. So the recycling ends up in landfills or incinerators.
But Carey may have a solution. She recently co-founded a company — GreenLabs Recycling — that handles clean-but-irregularly-shaped plastic waste from another industry: biotech.
For a fee, GreenLabs Recycling picks up the plastic, takes it to a special processor, and it goes on to be made into laundry detergent jugs, Adirondack chairs and other items. Carey says their pilot program was "a huge success."
Last May, Vandenabeele asked local Boston breweries Harpoon, Trillium and Lamplighter to set up collection barrels so customers could return their toppers for pickup by GreenLabs.
"Almost 50% are coming back to the breweries," he says. "30% of that 50% are being reused. So we’ve increased the reuse and recycling rate."
Ecofriendly Beer has an interactive map where you can find breweries that accept returned toppers. Bone up Brewing in Everett even pays customers a dollar a dozen for used toppers if they are a color that matches its cans.
"We’ve definitely seen a lot of customers bring the toppers back, which is super cool and really appreciated," says Lamplighter Brewery's Marvil. "Easy peasy."
The little assembly line that can
There's one hitch — plastic toppers are made from climate-disrupting fossil fuels.
Both Carey and Vandenabeele say reusing toppers or re-processing the plastic is better than turning them into trash, but acknowledge that there’s a better way. And several small breweries in New England have found it.
Tim Little is an itinerant beer canner from New Hampshire. His mobile canning company, State 64, travels around New England, serving small craft brewers too small to have their own canning operation, like Gentile Brewing Company in Beverly, where nine cans at a time roll off his portable assembly line.
"Today’s a very small run," says Little holding up a can of Gentile's new seasonal Squash Porter. "It’s as small as it gets right now … we’re doing 50 cases."
The microbrewery's owner, Paul Gentile, says canning saved his nano brewery when COVID-19 forced him to close down his beer-making bar.
"We had a bunch of beer in tanks we couldn’t serve on draft," he says, "so we designed a bunch of labels, started dumping beer into cans and started selling it out the windows in the tap room."
Little told Gentile about a new kind of beer can topper being made in Mexico, called E6PR. They're molded from agricultural waste, fibers left over in fields. The toppers are no-deposit and all-return to the soil.
Little invented a device to quickly stamp the E6PR toppers onto cans, making his the little assembly line that can. He says interest in the compostable toppers has grown, and seven of his craft breweries in the region have switched from plastic to E6PR, including Island Dog in Maine, To Share Brewing in New Hampshire, Hogback in Vermont, and Gentile in Beverly.
"We decided we’re going to switch to these compostable models," Gentile says. "They’re more earth-conscious; they’re more friendly to the environment."
They’re also more expensive. The E6PR toppers add about eight cents to a four-pack. But Gentile decided not to pass that on to his customers.
"It’s the cost of doing globally conscious business," he says. "If everyone felt like they needed to do it, I think we’d be in a much better place for the environment."
This segment aired on October 26, 2021.