Birds strangled. Otters with amputated limbs. Wars fought over the control of petroleum. What do these things have in common? Plastic six-pack rings.
Six-pack rings, also known as “yokes”, are a common and persistent environmental problem that needs to be resolved. Although only 50 years old, this product can be found nearly everywhere and causes a substantial amount of environmental damage. Although this article refers to them as 6-pack rings, this product can actually have any number of rings. And though they are commonly used as packaging for aluminum drink cans, 6-pack rings can be found on many types of products.
Six-pack rings seem to be everywhere these days. At least I always seem to find them when I go for a walk. This product is made out of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) that has a density range of 0.910 – 0.940g/cm³. This is lighter than water (1.000 g/cm³), which means that products made from LDPE float. They also are easily moved by the wind. Six-pack rings are literally built to travel.
One of the “solutions” to the pollution issue is photo-degradation. The theory is that direct sunlight will degrade the plastic to the point where it will break into lots of small pieces. Here’s the catch. Instead of one large piece of plastic, we now have lots of small pieces of plastic. The plastic itself does not biodegrade. It can last for thousands of years. The pieces will be eaten by animals and kill them. The pieces of plastic will also continue to leach toxins into the environment. This is not a solution, it is an environmenal disaster.
The second catch with photo-degradation is that it takes several months (up to 90 days according to U.S. Federal law) for 6-pack rings to break down. During that time, the ring is a hazard. And that time period assumes that the ring is in constant direct sunlight. Degradation of the ring could take hundreds of years if the ring is in shade or underwater.
Danger to wildlife
Thousands of birds, turtles, marine mammals, and other wildlife are killed every year by discarded 6-pack rings. Some animals get entangled in the pack. It wraps around their beak or muzzle, preventing them from eating. It tangles up their feet, wings, or fins. Young animals get entrapped and as they grow the 6-pack cuts into their flesh, sometimes amputating limbs or killing the animal.
Other animals mistake the floating object as food and ingest it. Think about it for a second before you judge them as stupid animals. Plastic floating on the surface of the water can resemble many edible items. It can look like a sea jelly (a.k.a. jellyfish) or a piece of seaweed. Since plastic has only been around for less than 200 years, most critters haven’t got the memo that it shouldn’t be eaten. Heck, I know humans that have eaten plastic and we’re supposed to the smartest animals around.
Use of scarce resources
Plastic is made from petroleum. Petroleum is a non-renewable resource. That means that once we’ve extracted all we can from the ground, we’re not getting any more. Petroleum is also a scarce resource. Wars have been, are currently being, and will be fought over the control of petroleum.
While an individual 6-pack ring doesn’t use much petroleum, millions are produced every year. Even then, it’s not a lot of petroleum consumed when compared to many of the other products we produce. But it doesn’t make sense from a sustainability standpoint to take a scarce and valuable resource, make it into a single use product to hold our beer cans together, and then discard it. We really need to start thinking things through as a species.
To be fair, 6-pack rings are not a major contributor to environmental pollution and wildlife mortality. Other plastic products are far more prevalent and deadlier. Cigarette butts, monofilament fishing line, and disposable plastic lighters are bigger dangers than 6-pack rings. But everything counts and this is a threat we can easily deal with.
Be sure to check out my article on solutions to the plastic six-pack ring problem.