Friday, August 12, 2022

Mad Mole tackles new recycling initiative to lessen plastic waste

Mad Mole has begun a recycling program for its number five plastic bags that package grains delivered weekly to the brewery. With the help of intern Carmen Keene, the initiative will expand to include other breweries as well. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — North Carolina boasts the most craft breweries and brewpubs — 380 — in the American South. Though its economic impact at $1.3 billion annually is impressive, less so is the environmental footprint it can leave behind. 

Plastics in particular pose a problem and not just in the ring carriers securing four- and six-pack cans. Number five, woven plastic bags, made from polypropylene, remain the standard packaging used to deliver grains to smaller craft breweries (different from the number four, low-density polyethylene bags shoppers receive at grocery stores).

According to operations manager Dano Ferrons, Wilmington’s Mad Mole Brewing Co. goes through 80 to 100 of the malt bags monthly. Although the plastics can be recycled, the fact they are extremely sturdy makes the process expensive and difficult. 

“To continue to be environmentally friendly, we are working on a reusable and recycle program for some of the packaging we receive our products in,” said Carmen Keene, an intern at Mad Mole Brewing Co. and a UNCW student studying environmental science.

Keene was integral to helping Ferrons implement the brewery’s initiative. Number five plastics often end up in landfills as a result of improper sorting or contamination from food waste (only plastic numbers one and two are allowed in New Hanover County’s landfill). 

Instead, Keene secured a partnership with UNCW’s recycling center about taking the malt bags. Since 1989, the center has diverted items in the landfill by sorting what it collects by hand and ensuring it reaches the right recycling vendor. The center takes unusual and unique items and over a four-year span processed 41 tons of plastic, reducing C02 emissions from burning 82 tons of coal.

Outside of recycling, Keene is also working with area nonprofits and organizations to repurpose the bags. In fact, she said she’d rather find a way to use them instead of depend on bulk recycling.

The Plastic Ocean Project and Keep New Hanover Beautiful both have taken some for trash sweeps. Wilmington Compost Company in Rocky Point — a collection service that picks up compostable waste material from both residential and commercial partners to produce healthy soils — also has been contacted.

READ MORE: Private compost service hopes to provide much needed waste to county composter with weekly pickup

“This type of plastic is strong, durable and highly impermeable to water,” Keene said.

She noted there is vast opportunity to make them reusable for public use, such as merchandise or totes (IKEA blue bags are made out of polypropylene). Some breweries nationwide repurpose the bags for takeaway beers.

The Surfrider Foundation has grabbed some to sew on a trial-run basis. Keene said Mad Mole is looking for other organizations and individuals that have an interest in transforming the bags into something usable.

“Finding groups of people to sew this many is the only missing piece in implementing this part of the initiative right now,” she said. 

Mad Mole has honed in on lessening its carbon footprint since opening four years ago. It operates on a seven-barrel electric system, powered in part by 63 solar panels, visible from its taproom. A year into operations, the brewery was crowned America’s favorite solar-powered microbrewery from the annual Brews from the Sun competition.

When Ferrons became employed in 2019, he wanted to keep the green momentum going. He had the idea to donate the brewery’s trub — a byproduct from the creation of IPA-style beers — to area organizations that could benefit from its high-nutrient waste in agriculture. 

“Trub is the yeast and hops that settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessels,” explained Ferrons, a graduate of Coastal Carolina University. He concentrated in coastal marine and wetlands science and was a teacher before working at the brewery.

“The trub is high in phosphorus and nitrogen and really good material for a nutrient rich compost,” Ferrons said.

The New Hanover County Arboretum, Cape Fear Garden Club and Airlie Gardens are recipients of the material.

Normally, Ferrons explained, many breweries wash the trub down the drain. Yet, it can be problematic for water treatment plants to filter high nutrient scraps in the waste stream. 

“Also, it is quality material for compost,” Ferrons said. “So in spring 2020, I began looking at ways to side stream the trub. The first option I used was to toss it in the dumpster. This is a little better than down the drain but, when it ends up in the landfill, its breakdown will turn into methane gas.”

He reached out to the Cape Fear Garden Club to ask how many five-gallon buckets they could pick up for the week to use in their countywide projects. While members obliged, Ferrons said he still had more trub left than he knew what to do with — so he contacted Airlie Gardens. 

“We add it to their county compost bin,” he said, somewhere around 15 to 30 five-gallon buckets weekly. 

As to not overburden any one organization with too much nutrient-loading compost, Ferrons is looking for other organizations interested in utilizing it. They reached out to New Hanover County Arboretum recently.

“[Mad Mole’s] focus on preserving our area’s natural beauty and promoting eco-friendly business practices is aligned with our values,” said Lloyd Singleton, director of the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension, which oversees the arboretum.

According to operations manager Dano Ferrons, Wilmington’s Mad Mole Brewing Co. goes through 80 to 100 of the malt bags monthly. (Courtesy photo)

Ferons said the trub program took about a year to gain momentum. With the recent expansion of Mad Mole, increasing production by 200%, he found his time spread thin, but the goal to maximize the brewery’s path toward sustainability still remained important.

So he submitted to UNCW’s environmental science department to be considered for its internship program. He proposed Mad Mole’s intern would focus on three areas of recycling waste: cardboard that comes from shipped goods, one-time use copolymer (mylar) bags that go inside tanks behind the bar, and the grain bags — polypropylene number five plastics.

“Every brewery in Wilmington is using the same type of bags at a higher quantity and just discarding them,” Ferrons said.

Since starting the program, Wrightsville Beach Brewery and Watermans have begun dropping off their number five plastic bags. Earlier in the week, Keene gave a presentation to Cape Fear Beer Alliance to compel more area breweries to join the cause. She said the feedback has been positive. 

“They followed up after the meeting to receive more detailed information to move forward,” Keene said. “Edward Teach has begun saving their bags and is talking to the neighboring brewery, Flytrap, about working together to do their own drop-offs.”

Next on Keene’s list is tackling the mylar bags — made from nonrenewable sources. She said whatever headway she makes likely will be passed off to the next intern, as her apprenticeship ends in August.  

“Learning and pursuing a passion in such a great environment inspired me to give my all and work to create something great,” Keene said about putting her education to practice. “It has also been inspiring to network and see people come together for a common cause by sharing a passion for sustainability and our environment.”

Ferrons said Keene’s curiosity and determination drove the initiative’s framework.

“Carmen pushed it forward beyond my wildest expectations,” he said. 

Ferrons would like to see the program expand beyond the borders of Wilmington. A similar program is already implemented in Asheville — a group of breweries banded together and started a recycling co-op to handle their industry waste via American Recycling of Western North Carolina. Ferrons said he plans for the next Mad Mole intern to look toward Charlotte and Raleigh, which combine over 70 craft breweries, to gain more traction.

Mad Mole is the first craft brewery among 178 community partners through the UNCW environmental science department, according to Rachael Urbanek, the EVS applied learning coordinator. 

“We hope this is the start of a new set of opportunities for students in the future,” Urbanek said.


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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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