You know those hard plastic beer can holders?
I have 147 of them. I counted. There are a variety of colors (black, brown, silver, red, purple, yellow, pink, blue, three shades of green) and mostly in packs of four, but also in packs of six.
Why do I have a rainbow collection of 147 plastic beer cup holders? Churning up a fair amount of beer is one reason, but another is that I haven’t wanted to throw them in the trash, for obvious reasons, or in recycling bins for less obvious reasons: even when they’re thrown out with milk jugs, newspapers, and cans. aluminum, rarely end up recycled.
So they have been piled up over the years on the back porch, with no real plan in place. I’ve just been waiting for a solution.
The solution has arrived. And I even got a free beer for my trouble.
Alex Parker gets most of the credit. Parker, a former Chicago Tribune editor who works in communications for Molson Coors, helped launch crafts for the climateyour personal effort to help prevent climate change.
The effort builds on Parker attending a Climate Reality Project seminar in 2019, where a simple question was posed: “What is the highest lever you can use to educate people about climate change?” Beer came to mind. Even before joining his current employer, Parker said he wasn’t involved in the effort, but was supportive, he was a beer lover. The intersection of beer and weather seemed like a natural place to start.
“I always thought that other people with more power took care of it and it seems that was not the case,” said Parker, 42. “I felt like I needed to do something. I did not know that.
In October 2021, he launched Craft For Climate, which had a mission, but no real plan. Parker considered hosting a craft beer festival with a climate education focus, but wasn’t sure that would result in significant change.
Then he found out Ecological beer drinker, a New England operation that recycles plastic beer caps in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. The program estimates that 88% of the plastic lids that are placed in recycling bins never end up being recycled.
The program “seemed replicable in Chicago,” Parker said. “And something people should be doing.”
Plastic caps, made from high-density polyethylene by Oregon-based PakTech, have become a popular means of packaging craft beer in recent years. Although plastic is recyclable and used in a variety of other products, the vast majority ends up not being recycled. Many are thrown away and even those that are placed in recycling bins end up in landfills by slipping through recycling sorting machines or becoming contaminated with other recyclable materials, such as glass. Chicago has a particularly abysmal recycling rate, stuck at less than 10%, the city said last year.
“When consumers think they’re doing the right thing, they may be contributing to the problem without realizing it,” Parker said. “We wanted people to know there was a better way to do this.”
Parker contacted Rob Vandenabeele, founder of Ecofriendly Beer Drinker, for guidance and learned that Adam Dickens, a candlemaker from Elmhurst, was also interested in replicating the project here. Parker and Dickens tried to tackle the problem with a simple solution: Create a network of places to drop off plastic caps, then a smaller network of places to funnel the caps, and then find a way to ensure they get recycled.
Craft for Climate has recruited over 40 Chicago breweries and microbreweries to collect PakTech holders and take them to four larger collection centers: Half Acre and Temperance breweries, SCARCE environmental education nonprofit in Addison, and Heartland Beverage beer distributor in St. Charles. Finally, the Resource Center, a 47-year-old composting and recycling nonprofit on Chicago’s South Side, picks them up and makes sure they’re recycled.
“By keeping them together and getting them to a final buyer, we know they don’t end up in the landfill,” Parker said.
Craft for Climate also urges breweries to reuse caps where possible.
Ken Dunn, founder and president of the Resource Center, said the low recycling rate for PakTech plastic reflects “the unfortunate failure of the mainstream recycling system.” He estimates that a scant 1% of caps are recycled without such specific programs. PakTech’s caps are a small part of a larger problem, but it’s welcome attention for a recycling system in need of reinvention, he said.
“I’m glad it’s becoming clear that integrity in recycling is something we need to get back to,” Dunn said.
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Parker said he hopes to expand the program to include other aspects of beer production, including grain bag recycling.
“I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with sustainable beer in Chicago,” he said.
Josh Gilbert, owner of Temperance, said the tops started arriving as soon as they announced in May that they were taking them. Even before their container appeared, they have filled more than six garbage bags with them.
To entice customers, Temperance is giving away free beer: a draft beer that matches the height of the stack of caps someone brings in, capped at a pint of 16.9 ounces. Other breweries, including Imperial Oak and Midwest Coast, also offer free beer for PakTech holders.
One Tuesday afternoon I brought my batch, all 147. In return, the bartender slipped an easy-to-drink ice cold beer on the bar.
Gilbert pointed out that I could have spread out bringing the plastic holders to get three or four more pints. I told him I didn’t want to be greedy. Most of all, he made me happy to recycle that plastic.