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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Brewing Up Sustainable Solutions for Plastic Tea Bags, Six-Pack Rings

2018 is gearing up to be a big year for packaging innovation.

2018 is gearing up to be a big year for packaging innovation. Already we’ve seen food industry giants such as Coca-Cola, Evian, Amcor, Iceland and Waitrose commit to slashing single-use plastics and embracing circularity, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has recognized five new packaging solutions that are helping catalyze the New Plastics Economy. Further accelerating the shift are two new biodegradable packaging alternatives from startup E6PR and UK-based supermarket chain The Co-operative.

While CO2 emissions and energy and water usage have predominantly been the focus of the beer industry’s sustainability efforts, Florida’s SaltWater Brewery has identified a different way to appease growing consumer demand for environmentally responsible products and gain a competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded market: a biodegradable six-pack holder.

Designed by E6PR, the Eco Six-Pack Ring is made from wheat and barley, meaning it is not only compostable but “bio-benign.” Wildlife often confuses plastic six-pack rings as food, a mistake that can lead to injury or death. E6PR’s ring, however, readily degrades in the environment or in water and the material won’t harm wildlife if ingested.

“For Big Beer, it’s really about making sure that we can not only produce the E6PRs, but also apply them at the speed that those lines require,” Marco Vega, co-founder of We Believers, the ad agency that worked with engineering firm Entelequia to create the packaging and the startup to produce it, told Fast Company.

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Beyond the beer industry, E6PR hopes to bring its breakthrough packaging to other beverages, such as soda, a move that could help turn the tide on the eight million tons of plastic pollution that find their way into the world’s oceans each year.

Meanwhile, British supermarket chain The Co-operative has developed a fully-biodegradable paper tea bag. The bags, which were developed in partnership with tea supplier Typhoo and Ahlstrom-Munksjö, specialists in sustainable fiber solutions, utilize a new heat-sealing method that will effectively eliminate the need for more widely used plastic seals.

The Co-op currently sells around 4.6 million boxes (376 million teabags) annually and the eradication of polypropylene could help the retailer divert around nine tons of plastic from landfill annually.

“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic. Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the six billion cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tons of polypropylene — that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill,” said Jo Whitfield, CEO of Co-op Food.

“A cup of tea is part of our national psyche, so we felt it was imperative that we fix the problem as soon as possible. We’re absolutely committed to reducing plastic in our packaging and want to ensure that tea lovers can enjoy a guilt-free brew.”

The new biodegradable bag, which is scheduled to undergo rigorous testing in February, could be on shelves later this year. The Co-op intends to roll out the teabags across its entire own-label tea range. The retailer has confirmed that the teabags will be fully compostable in food waste collections after use.

The packaging solution builds on the Co-op’s existing commitment to reduce the environmental impact of its products and its long-term ambition for 100 percent of its product packaging to be recyclable with an interim target of 80 percent by 2020. This includes reducing the amount of unnecessary and hard-to-recycle plastic packaging and using more recycled content wherever possible.