Adopt
plastic six pack rings

The danger of plastic six-pack rings

The danger of plastic six-pack rings to wildlife

Images of sea turtles and gulls trapped in plastic six-pack rings are ubiquitous on the internet. Terrestrial wildlife isn’t safe either, though. Squirrels, hedgehogs and even cats have all been found tangled in the plastic rings. First introduced by the retail industry in 1961, they were identified as a serious threat to wildlife by the 1970s. Fifty years later, though, and cans still come packaged with plastic rings.

Companies have made some steps to remedy the problem. During the past few years, a number of alcohol manufacturers have introduced alternative forms of packaging for their cans. Heineken, for example, intended to use new cardboard grips across its entire UK range by the end of 2021. Tesco also introduced its own policy in 2021 of refusing to sell can multipacks that use plastic rings. Nonetheless, plastic rings remain the default packaging for many canned alcoholic and some non-alcoholic drinks.

HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PLASTIC RINGS

While they remain in use, they remain a danger to wildlife. In May, WiltshireLive reported that a hedgehog found dead in Swindon was believed to have suffocated after getting caught in a six-pack ring. And in September 2021, the Daily Mail reported that a duck with a six-pack ring around its neck in Manchester was rescued by the RSPCA. It appeared the situations resulted directly from littering, with both creatures discovered in urban areas. Hedgehogs seem particularly vulnerable to the rings, with multiple reports of the animal caught in them made on social media And these reports are undoubtedly only the tip of the iceberg.

Knowing the full scale of the problem is difficult. There aren’t any reliable figures on either the production or disposal of six-pack rings in the UK, though we can use some data to imagine the volume. Tennent’s, a Scottish brewery, said in 2021 that it would removed 150 tonnes of plastic from cans of Tennent’s Lager. This figure included “more than 100 million plastic… rings”. We can use this rough number to understand how many rings are used by other breweries.

When Heineken UK announced it planned to introduced cardboard grips, the company said the process would remove 517 tonnes of plastic annually from its supply chain. However, this figure included shrink wrapping too. When Carlsberg said it would use an adhesive method of packaging multipacks, the company claimed the change would save 1200 tonnes of plastic every year across its European market including the UK. And Guinness claimed 400 tonnes of plastic would be removed from its UK and Ireland markets when it announced a similar move.

It’s clear that these figures mean that hundreds of millions – if not billions – of plastic beer rings are already being pushed into the world each year. It takes just one to harm or kill an animal. On pure numbers alone, they must pose a huge threat to wildlife. Yet meaningful action to solve the problem has taken decades.

TRYING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

Different initiatives have attempted to resolve the problem. The most common one has been the decades-long informal campaign asking people to cut the rings before disposing of them. It clearly hasn’t solved the problem that the packaging poses to wildlife but it’s likely had an immeasurably positive impact. In 2019, a company known as TerraCycle claimed to have made it possible to recycle the rings by turning them into pellets for use in other plastic products. This UK initiative was carried out in conjunction with hi-cone, the company that first invented the six-pack ring in the 1960s. TerraCycle had high hopes that the scheme, which involved people either posting the rings or taking them to community drop-off points, would spread across the UK and Europe. But the lack of mention of the program on TerraCycle’s website today suggests it didn’t last.

The most visible and successful initiatives so far are the previously mentioned steps by manufacturers to replace plastic rings with alternatives. Tesco’s banning of plastic rings was also a major milestone, although no other UK supermarkets have yet followed its lead. While good for wildlife, these changes have also led to other problems. Widespread reports suggest the cardboard alternatives most frequently used aren’t holding up to the rigours of transport. This has led to large volumes of items damaged and broken, resulting in increased food waste.

The difficulty in knowing the full scale of six-pack rings’ impact on wildlife and the wider environment makes it difficult to know how effective solutions may be. In 2020, a UK ban was introduced on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. The government trumpeted the move as a “major step” to “protect our environment and clean up our oceans”. But Channel 4’s FactCheck pointed out in 2019 that the government’s impact assessments were based entirely on assumed figures. This was because there was a “lack of data and research” on the topic. Six-pack rings suffer from a similar lack of data and research.

CHANGES IN LITTERING DATA

There’s no doubt that plastic six-pack rings are a danger to wildlife. Knowing how big a threat they pose, though, is difficult to quantify. The most visible danger – that of animals getting caught in the rings – can be mitigated by all of us if we cut the rings before disposing of them. However, it’s clear from the number found uncut that such large-scale behavioural change probably isn’t completely possible. Furthermore, even cut rings remain plastic, a material that not only doesn’t biodegrade but is made from fossil fuels in the first place. Taking the entire lifecycle of a plastic six-pack ring into account, the direct and indirect danger it poses to wildlife is huge.

There is some positive news. Planet Patrol, which bills itself as a decentralised movement tackling environmental issues, uses an app to collect data on littering in the UK. Its 2021 report said that “plastics accounted for 66.8% of litter in 2019” but this had “dropped to 51% in 2021”, a significant change that it attributes to “a combination of awareness raising, public pressure, government policy and collective action”. On the other hand, it noted that a drop in plastic littering was met by an increase in metal and paper/cardboard litter. The data suggests that materials have changed, not social behaviour. Finding dead hedgehogs caught up in six-pack rings fifty years after warnings about their dangers began supports this suggestion.

Ultimately it’s human behaviour that poses the greatest threat to wildlife. Six-pack rings are harming and killing animals because we as individuals and as a culture have chosen to prioritise convenience over thoughtfulness or compassion. Planet Patrol’s report said that swapping out one material for another is “insufficient” in tackling the problem of littering. Instead “we must cut down consumption”.

This requires not just individualised solutions such as cutting plastic rings or recycling, important though those actions are. It requires fighting for deep changes that challenge the culture of consumption and convenience forced on us in the first place. Maybe then we’ll finally stop seeing heartbreaking images of animals snared in plastic.