Mad Mole tackles new recycling initiative to reduce plastic waste

Mad Mole has started a recycling program for its five plastic bags that wrap the beans delivered to the brewery each week. With the help of intern Carmen Keene, the initiative will expand to other breweries as well. (Courtesy picture)

WILMINGTON — North Carolina has the most craft breweries and craft breweries — 380 — in the southern United States. While its economic impact of $1.3 billion a year is impressive, the environmental footprint it can leave behind is less so.

Plastics in particular are a problem, and not just in the ring mounts securing four- and six-pack cans. Fifthly, woven plastic bags, made of polypropylene, remain the Standard packaging used to deliver cereal to small craft breweries (different from number four, the low-density polyethylene bags buyers receive at grocery stores).

Mad Mole Brewing Co. in Wilmington uses 80 to 100 bags of malt per month, according to operations manager Dano Ferrons. Although plastics can be recycled, the fact that they are extremely sturdy makes the process expensive and difficult.

“To continue to be environmentally responsible, we are working on a program to reuse and recycle some of the packaging in which we receive our products,” said Carmen Keene, intern at Mad Mole Brewing Co. and student at the UNCW in Environmental Sciences.

Keene was instrumental in helping Ferrons implement the brewery initiative. Number five plastics often end up in landfills due to improper sorting or food waste contamination (only number one and two plastics are allowed in the New Hanover County landfill).

Instead, Keene has partnered with the UNCW Recycling Center to collect the malt bags. Since 1989, the center has been diverting items from landfill by sorting what it collects by hand and ensuring it reaches the correct recycling supplier. The center takes unusual and unique objects and, over a four-year period, processed 41 tonnes of plastic, reducing C02 emissions from burning 82 tonnes of coal.

Outside of recycling, Keene also works with nonprofits and organizations in the area to reuse the bags. In fact, she said she’d rather find a way to use them than rely on bulk recycling.

The Plastic Ocean Project and Keep New Hanover Beautiful both took it for trash sweeps. Wilmington Compost Company at Rocky Point – a collection service that collects compostable waste from residential and commercial partners to produce healthy soils – was also contacted.

READ MORE: Private composting service hopes to supply much-needed waste to county composter with weekly pickup

“This type of plastic is strong, durable and highly waterproof,” Keene said.

She noted that there are many possibilities to make them reusable for public use, such as goods or bags (IKEA blue bags are made of polypropylene). Some breweries across the country are reusing the bags for takeout beers.

The Surfrider Foundation has collected some to sew them on a trial basis. Keene said Mad Mole is looking for other organizations and individuals interested in turning the bags into something usable.

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

Mad Mole has strived to reduce its carbon footprint since opening four years ago. It runs on a seven-barrel electrical system, powered in part by 63 solar panels, visible from its consumption room. After a year in business, the brewery has been crowned America’s favorite solar-powered microbrewery in the annual Brews from the Sun competition.

When Ferrons became employed in 2019, he wanted to maintain the green momentum. He came up with the idea of ​​donating the brewery’s trub — a byproduct of creating IPA-style beers — to organizations in the area that could benefit from its nutrient-rich waste in agriculture.

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

“Trub is rich in phosphorus and nitrogen and makes a very good material for nutrient-rich compost,” said Ferrons.

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

Normally, Ferrons explained that many breweries wash truffles down the drain. Yet, it can be problematic for water treatment plants to filter nutrient-rich wastes from the waste stream.

“In addition, it is a quality material for compost”, said Ferrons. “So in the spring of 2020, I started looking for ways to diffuse the trouble aside. The first option I used was to throw it in the trash. It’s a little better than in the sewers, but when it ends up in the landfill, its decomposition will turn into methane gas.

He contacted the Cape Fear Garden Club to ask how many five-gallon buckets they could collect for the week to use in their county-wide projects. While the members were 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, about 15 to 30 five-gallon buckets a week.

In order not to overload an organization with too much nutrient-rich compost, Ferrons is looking for other organizations interested in using it. They recently contacted the New Hanover County Arboretum.

“[Mad Mole’s] emphasis on preserving our region’s natural beauty and promoting environmentally responsible business practices is consistent with our values,” said Lloyd Singleton, director of the New Hanover County Cooperative Extension, which oversees the arboretum.

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 scattered, but the goal of maximizing the brewery’s path to sustainability remained important.

So he applied to UNCW’s Department of Environmental Science to be considered for its internship program. He proposed that the Mad Mole intern focus on three areas of waste recycling: cardboard from shipped goods, single-use copolymer (mylar) bags that go inside the tanks behind the bar, and bags grain – the number five polypropylene plastic.

“Every brewery in Wilmington uses the same type of bags in greater quantities and just throws them away,” said Ferrons.

Since the program began, Wrightsville Beach Brewery and Watermans have started dropping off their five plastic bags. Earlier in the week, Keene made a presentation at the Cape Fear Beer Alliance to get more breweries in the area to join the cause. She said the feedback was positive.

“They followed up after the meeting to receive more detailed information moving forward,” Keene said. “Edward Teach has started saving their bags and is talking to nearby brewery, Flytrap, about working together to make their own deposits.”

Next on Keene’s list tackles mylar bags, which are made from non-renewable sources. She said any progress she makes will likely be passed on to the next trainee, as her apprenticeship ends in August.

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

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

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

Ferrons would like to see the program expand beyond Wilmington’s borders. A similar program is already being implemented in Asheville – a group of breweries have come together and started a recycling cooperative to manage their industry’s waste through American Recycling of Western North Carolina. Ferrons said he expects Mad Mole’s next intern to look to Charlotte and Raleigh, which combine more than 70 craft breweries, to gain more traction.

Mad Mole is the first craft brewery among 178 community partners through UNCW’s Department of Environmental Science, according to Rachael Urbanek, SVE’s applied learning coordinator.

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

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Bryce K. Locke