By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Apr 20, 2021 at 11:08 AM

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Can I recycle cardboard six-pack and 12-pack holders?

Should I rinse my bottles and cans before recycling?

So many questions surrounding the simple act of drinking a beer these days.

The need for this story became apparent last week when, on the same day, one of the best beer writers in the state posted a question on social media about recycling those plastic Pak-Tech four- and six-pack holders used by craft brewers, and a local brewer and I realized we had conflicting opinions on whether or not the shrink-wrapped beer label sleeves needed to be removed before recycling.

If these folks don't know, why would the rest of us?

Seeking the answers, I talked to Samantha Longshore, who is the City of Milwaukee’s Resource Recovery Program manager (that’s code for the recycling boss).

As a conscientious recycler, I always remove the shrink wrap beer can labels that many craft brewers use because of the large minimum orders required for printed cans.

But I find I have to slash them with something sharp to get the peeling started, which I don't love (hear that, sleeve makers? Maybe you could add a little tab to simplify and make safer this process!).

So, that was my first question for Longshore: must the shrink wrap plastic label sleeve be removed?

“Yes, it does have to come off,” she says. “It's one of those situations where, at this point, it's a little new. If we're getting a couple in, it's not seriously downgrading our aluminum. But more and more – especially as the craft breweries that aren't producing these large amounts to be able to save on buying those printed cans, are moving into shrink wrap – as this becomes more commonplace, it is an issue.

“Primarily, because it is plastic. And so, it's riding with the aluminum as a contaminant, because it's a different kind of material. So, it can downgrade the aluminum. The cans would get sorted with the aluminum anyway, but they make it downgraded.”

As for the adhesive labels that brewers often use on cans for short-run brews, those are OK to leave on, says Longshore.

“That has more to do with the process,” she says. “During that heating process, paper is okay, because those materials can get burned away. Especially, when you're thinking beer bottles and those sticky paper labels, those are OK to keep on.”

But, get ready for the real news here.

“While we're talking beer cans,” says Longshore, “another thing that we really try to make sure that people know (is) when they finish an aluminum can, sometimes it's really fun to hockey puck it, to crush it (into) this small puck-like shape.

“We lose a lot of aluminum like that, because it's such a small little shape, it's hard for it to get sorted. We say, it's not super fun, but try not to crush your can. Finish it, rinse it, toss it right into the cart.”

This is where I begin to question my recycling skills. I always crush the cans at least a little bit, thinking that I’m helping to save space in the bin, in the truck, etc. But, no!

“I always did it, too,” admits Longshore, “because we used to sort our aluminum as kids. You crushed all the cans, and you took your aluminum in. But that was already source-separated, so it didn't matter. But when it's all mixed together, it relies on that shape and that size to get through to the right place.

“I’ve disappointed all of my friends in saying, ‘Please, don't hockey puck that when you're done’."

As for bottles, says Longshore, everything is simpler.

“Just recycle them,” she instructs. “We say don't send broken glass, just because it tends to not make it through the materials. Throw your whole bottles in there. We do say beer bottles are OK, but drinking glasses are not, because they're a different kind of treated glass. Those are not recyclable with your typical beer cans or glass jars.”

And when it comes to both cans and bottles ...

“Rinse, please,” asks Longshore, adding that tossing your empties into the cardboard six- and 12-pack holders should be avoided.

“If you can flatten the (cardboard), that's great,” she says. “We appreciate that. And just take your other recyclables out of there, as well.

“A lot of times we'll find a cardboard six-pack, and there are cans or bottles inside those little folders and they didn't come apart. So, making sure that you're taking apart your materials, and they're all loose and the cardboard is flattened really helps. Because if they stay together, they can't get sorted into their different streams.”

While Paktech four- and six-pack holders, which the tops of the cans snap into, are No. 2 plastics, which can be recycled – in Milwaukee, Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are acceptable – Longshore says their shape can be problematic.

“We're looking for 3D shapes,” she says. “Because, again, like your plastic bottles, your laundry detergent bottles, water bottles, your yogurt cups, they all have that 3D shape.

“So, they get sorted away from paper and cardboard, which are flat. Because those tops are flat, that's also a no there.”

Fortunately, many craft brewers are happy to have Paktechs back, and reusing is even better than recycling because it sucks up less energy and resources.

While a few brewers offer incentives – like The Fermentorium, which offers $3 off any four-pack or $5 off any taproom beer for every 15 Paktechs returned – most take them back simply to facilitate reusing them and keeping them out of landfills.

Note that while some breweries are particular about color or size (i.e. four-pack or six-pack) – for example Eagle Park is happy to have your black Paktechs, and The Fermentorium takes any color but only wants clean, non-stickered four-tops  – others will take anything.

“We appreciate those who want to help us reduce waste,” says Eagle Park’s Jake Schinker.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.