Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout’s resident beer expert answers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week, I received the following beer question via Twitter:
If you’re struggling to picture what a shrink-wrap beer label is, here’s an example:
Small brewers are increasingly using these types of sleeves, as well as stick-on vinyl labels, because of challenges with traditional, printed beer cans. Many beer can manufacturers require breweries to buy printed cans by the truckload, roughly 150,000 cans at a time. That’s a huge investment for a small brewery, which might want to only release a small batch of a seasonal beer, or doesn’t have the space to store that many cans. Those small breweries are turning to shrink-wrapped or vinyl-sticker labels, which offer greater flexibility.
But are those labels recyclable?
The answer is complicated. Where you live determines who your recycling provider is, so exact recycling processes vary by location. The vast majority of recycling plants accept traditional, printed aluminum cans. Vinyl stickers and shrink-wrapped sleeves, though, pose more of a challenge.
So far, there isn’t enough concentration of these shrink-wrapped or stickered cans among the printed soda, sparkling water, and beer cans to cause much of a headache for recycling facilities… yet. But if these cans become more prevalent in the aluminum mix, that could change.
“If everyone started doing these sticker labels, it might cause problems at the aluminum process mills, but if it’s one or 10 cans mixed into thousands, I don’t think that volume exists right now,” says Jeremy Walters, community relations manager for recycling and waste disposal company Republic Services. “Right now, those are probably less than one percent in a batch of aluminum.”
Renee Robinson, the director of corporate communications for aluminum can manufacturer Ball Corporation, says that at current levels, the shrink-wrapped labels aren’t yet rendering those cans non-recyclable.
“As long as the concentration of shrink-sleeved cans isn’t overwhelming, the sleeves do burn off in the aluminum smelting process and do not affect the recyclability of the can,” Robinson tells The Takeout.
Again, if those sleeves were attached to a greater percentage of the overall aluminum can market, the label-burning process would be of greater concern. Luke Truman, head of facilities for Portland, Maine brewery Allagash and a member of the Brewers Association’s sustainability subcommittee, tells The Takeout that stickers are often made of vinyl, while shrink-wrap is mostly PET (polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic film that shrinks when heated). Whether burning a greater number of those labels is a task that recyclers and aluminum recovery plants could handle is still an open question.
“At a typical recycling facility, a zero-sort center where machines separate out PET, they can mistake a shrink-wrapped can for a bottle,” Truman says. “If that doesn’t happen and all goes well and the can gets through the processing plant to be recycled, the label is getting burned off. From what I understand, that [burning] can cause problems with the processing equipment.”
Ian Hughes, sustainability ambassador for the Brewers Association, says he’s beginning to hear complaints from some recycling facilities about shrink-wrapped labels, though most plants will still accept them.
“They still take these cans for now, but the labels can cause issues with equipment wear-and-tear at recycling facilities. I’ve heard some facilities say that they can increase fire risk. Some say the labels reduce efficiency by introducing non-aluminum material into their processes,” he says. “And others say the plastic labels cause emissions spikes when the cans with them are melted down.”
Michael Anderson, senior manager of recycling technology at aluminum recycler Novelis, says the potential fire risk involved with incinerating these cans is substantial. He tells me the plastic labels are about 10 times the weight of a can’s traditional paint coating, which makes them more difficult to burn off.
“Any combustibles, whether it be paper, plastic, or cardboard acts as a fuel source in our de-coating processes and at a minimum … hampers our productivity,” he says. “Worst case, the material flames so hot that it burns our baghouses and results in physical damage to our recycling process, ultimately resulting in a line stoppage until the equipment can be repaired.”
Because there’s still a lot of uncertainty about exactly if and how these shrink-wrap and vinyl-sticker cans are being recycled in various states and cities, Truman has submitted a project to MIT’s Sloan School Of Management that will hopefully assemble a resource for brewers and drinkers to help make decisions about recycling cans based on where they live.
For now, if beer drinkers want to help recycling centers out, an easy way to do that would be to cut shrink-wrap off a can, or peel off that vinyl sticker as best you can. That does mean it will go into your trash, but the rest of that aluminum can will likely pass through the recycling process safely.
“The more effort people put into recycling on the front end, the better it will be for the process. We find ourselves on a teeter-totter where we don’t want to ask people to do too much and discourage them from recycling. It’s trying to find that sweet spot,” Walters says. “But if you’re willing to tear that label off, it’s better for the whole process.”