With so much industry discussion about the need for automation and digital transformation, sometimes it’s important to step back and realize how many challenges can be solved with a simple rubber band.
Drake’s Brewing in San Leandro, Calif., certainly found that to be true when looking for a more environmentally friendly alternative to shrink-wrapping its empty kegs before moving them around its facility. Though effective, the process was wasteful and also labor-intensive. In 2019, Drake’s found a simple solution to what had been an ongoing problem. Reusable rubber pallet bands from Aero Rubber have resulted in dramatic savings on disposal costs, budget, and labor time for the brewery. These savings have enabled the brewery to invest in other sustainable practices and optimize the business and budget.
In search of sustainability
Hal McConnellogue, at the time Drake’s cellar manager, had already been looking for a way to transition to more sustainable practices. The shrink wrap was a significant area not only of waste but of safety concern and efficiency. But then an unrelated trash violation in 2019 turned out to be just what the brewer needed to kick things into gear.
Alameda County, where Drake’s produces its beer, conducts random trash inspections at commercial businesses, and Drake’s received a citation for putting waxed cardboard in the recycle bin instead of the compost bin. “There was no fine if we asked for help from their staff, so we did,” says McConnellogue, who has since been made the brewery’s sustainability manager. “At that point, they turned us onto a county agency that helps businesses learn the laws and offers grants for switching to reusables.”
While assessing the brewer’s processes, the auditor noted Drake’s shrink-wrap usage, which was considerable. “It’s hard to fathom how much you go through until you start digging into all the ways you use it. Due to the layout of our facility, we had some pretty wasteful practices,” McConnellogue says. “All of our kegs are shipped back to us empty, and we would send them to a separate building from where they were received [after shrink wrapping]. They would be cleaned, wrapped back up, and sent to another building to be filled. Once they arrived in the packaging area, they were stripped of the wrap, filled, and then poly strapped.”
With this process, Drake’s Brewing was going through about 5,000 ft of shrink wrap per week, McConnellogue says. Not only was this usage a problem, but disposing of it was troublesome as well.
The waste management auditor told McConnellogue about a grant through the county for investing in reusable transportation materials. The $5,000 grant allowed Drake’s Brewing to explore shrink-wrap alternatives for drastically dialing back its budget and environmental impact.
Alternatives to shrink wrap
The first suggestion the auditor made was to try mesh pallet wraps instead, but the cumbersome wraps took a long time to apply and were excessive for the application. The next solution, ratchet straps, did not work well either. “They were really hard to use because you had to keep tension on them the whole time,” McConnellogue says. “Otherwise, they’d fall toward the bottom of the keg. And you needed two people to put them on.” Trials with poly strapping were promising, but also time-consuming, due to the equipment involved.
Ultimately, the auditor turned McConnellogue onto Aero Rubber’s rubber pallet bands, which the auditor had seen in use at a food facility. Samples in hand, the team set up a test to evaluate the bands. Forklift drivers double-stacked the kegs, stabilized them with the rubber pallet bands, and went full speed down a bumpy shipping alley between Drake’s two complexes.
Not only did the kegs stay securely in place, but the ease of application saved the workers time and also created a safer work environment. “It hits three key points of sustainability for us: environmental, economical, and human,” McConnellogue says. “Have you ever tried wrapping a pallet with stretch film? It can be fairly dangerous walking backwards in a hazardous and high-production area such as a brewery.”
Pallet bands, on the other hand, are easily applied by one employee, with no equipment or training required. “It’s fairly easy and the fact that the rubber sticks to the keg makes it even easier to do,” he says. “Obviously, it’s easier with a second set of hands, but it’s not as prohibitive to apply solo as you may think.”
Pleased with how well the bands performed, Drake’s Brewing reached out to Aero Rubber to place an order. With an investment of just $500, Drake’s was up and running with several hundred rubber pallet bands to transport its empty kegs. And because the bands are reusable, the same band can be used many times before needing to be replaced.
It took just over three months for the brewery to achieve ROI. After one year of use, the company had replaced 226,248 ft2 of plastic shrink wrap with rubber pallet bands, significantly reducing the company’s plastic waste output. Since 2019, the trend has continued, with an additional 61,886 ft2 of shrink wrap eliminated between 2020 and 2021, further reducing shrink wrap and disposal costs.
Pallet bands also improved the team’s efficiency, allowing them to stack empty kegs four high, each level secured with its own pallet band, to transport around the facility. “It’s super secure,” McConnellogue says. “I don’t think anybody’s ever had one break.”
The green bands are easy to spot in a facility filled with steel machinery and can be hung up on hooks around the warehouse for easy access, McConnellogue adds. “When anybody’s moving anything that warrants wrapping something up, that’s what they grab,” he says. This includes bags of grain that slide around during transport.
In just the first year of using Aero’s rubber pallet bands, Drake’s prevented 565 lb of plastic waste from entering landfills, compared to the previous year, and its shrink-wrap budget was cut in half. Three years later, the company’s total shrink-wrap budget is down 75%, and its in-house shrink-wrap use is reduced by 95%.
Now, when workers from other breweries visit Drake’s Brewing’s facility and see the pallet bands, they ask the team about their banding process. “They want to know where they can get them,” McConnellogue said. “I give them a bundle to try.”
McConnellogue hopes to get industry partners onboard with using pallet bands as well. Distributors, for example, still shrink-wrap kegs for return. One reason for this, however, is that sometimes the kegs come back with leftover beer in them, which might not work well with the bands. “One of the things I stress for safety is to not use these bands for anything that has substantial weight to them, especially liquid that sloshes around,” McConnellogue says.
Meanwhile, Drake’s is using the rubber bands for nearly every process where it seems feasible to replace hand-applied stretch film, McConnellogue says. And Drake’s has changed the way it disposes of the inevitable amount of shrink wrap that still gets used.
“We are currently still receiving dirty kegs that are wrapped in machine-applied stretch film,” McConnellogue says. But with the savings in shrink-wrap waste, the brewery was able to invest in a baler to compact the waste from its incoming shipments. “We remove this and collect it in large sacks, and every four to six weeks we compact about 700 lb of it and sell it to a recycler.”