The Dutch beer company Heineken is getting rid of the plastic six-pack rings and shrink wrap that hold its beer cans together in favor of a cardboard alternative, according to the Guardian.
The company will initially introduce the new material in the United Kingdom, where it invested £22 million (approximately $28.2 million USD) in new equipment to handle the transition. The first cardboard rings will be released in 2020. From there, the company will expand the product to other markets.
In the UK alone, Heineken produces 530 million cans per year across its brands. Shifting to cardboard will eliminate 517 tons of plastic annually.
“It’s what our customers want and expect, and we have been working on and testing this innovation for three years,” Cindy Tervoort, the head of marketing at Heineken, told the Guardian.
In recent years, companies have begun to invest in plastic alternatives as the harms of plastic pollution become better understood. Each year, up to 12 million tons of plastic enter the ocean, causing extensive damage to marine life. Everything from straws to single-use bags to bottles have been revamped to reduce plastic waste.
Plastic six-pack rings, however, have been a target of criticism long before the current zero-waste movement.
Made from sturdy, hard-to-tear material, these rings often end up in marine environments where they get stuck around the necks, chests, and limbs of marine animals. Sometimes, a baby animal will get stuck in six-pack ring and then its body will have to grow around it as it ages. These rings are also often accidentally ingested by larger animals, and eventually break down into microplastics that pervade the ocean.
A growing number of beer and soda brands have adopted sustainable alternatives to the six-pack ring.
The beer brand Carlsberg created a recyclable glue to hold cans together, while Guiness simply went with an open cardboard box. Some brewers are even creating six-pack rings that marine animals can safely consume.
In addition to responding to consumer demands, these companies are also getting out ahead of regulatory changes. Dozens of countries have begun to restrict single-use plastic production, including the European Union, which has vowed to eliminate most single-use plastics in the years ahead.
Switching to cardboard rings allows Heineken to avoid public ire and future legal fines, while maintaining the same quality product.