Breweries Tap Into Sustainability

By Emma Dill, posted Aug 18, 2023
Dano Ferons, operation manager at Mad Mole Brewing, helped lead the brewery to focus on green initiatives that include recycling grain bags and donating the byproduct, know as trub, left after the brewing process. (Photo by Madeline Gray)
At Wilmington’s Mad Mole Brewing, empty 55-pound grain bags were starting to pile up last spring.

Dano Ferons, the brewery’s operation manager, knew the tough, industrial-grade plastic bags could be recycled, but they weren’t accepted by New Hanover County. He didn’t know quite where to start, so the problem moved to the back burner as the pile continued to grow.

Mad Mole Brewing opened its doors in 2018 and is located at 6309 Boathouse Road in Wilmington. With a “brewed by the sun” tagline, the brewery uses solar panels on its roof to power its brewing operations.

Eventually, Ferons reached out to the University of North Carolina Wilmington about hosting an intern to tackle the dilemma. There, he found success. The summer after her junior year at UNCW, Carmen Keene, an undergrad majoring in environmental science, began as an intern with Mad Mole. 

After about a month of research and communication with local recycling centers, Keene connected with Feletia Lee, the recycling coordinator for UNCW’s on-campus recycling depot. Lee has since been promoted to the university’s chief sustainability officer.

“We found out that, as long as we could bale [the grain bags], one of our vendors would buy it from us,” Lee said. “And that’s how it started.”

The company that purchases the bales of bags shreds them up and turns them into new industrial bags, Lee said.

“Plastic doesn’t have unlimited recyclability,” she said. “Eventually, you have to add virgin material into it, but it offsets the amount of virgin material that you need.”

To expand the reach of the recycling program, Keene pitched it to a range of local breweries along with the regional craft brewing association. There, she found many breweries were facing the same dilemma as Mad Mole even as the used grain bags piled up.

Keene also established partnerships with environmental groups, including Cape Fear River Watch and the Plastic Ocean Project, to reuse the sturdy grain bags during trash collections.

“It just gives that bag another life,” Ferons said. “It can be used a little bit longer.”

Keene’s internship kicked off a string of collaborations between Mad Mole and UNCW students. The next semester, the brewery hosted Helia Schoenfeld, an undergrad who focused her efforts on the brewery’s day-to-day operations. 

Schoenfeld helped recruit more breweries for the recycling initiative and helped to spruce up the brewery’s taproom with wood salvaged from pallets and from Legacy Architectural Salvage, a part of the Wilmington Historic Foundation, Ferons said.

Schoenfeld also researched ways to use spent grains, a byproduct of the brewing process, to help treat wastewater.

During Schoenfeld’s time at Mad Mole, the brewery began working with a local garden club and Airlie Gardens in 2020 to compost trub, a substance that’s left over from the beer’s fermentation process, Ferons said. 

Before that partnership, the brewery had simply washed trub, which is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, down the drain.

Even with the composting partnerships, the brewery was producing more trub than could be used, so the brewery formed a partnership with the Wilmington Compost Company to compost the brewery’s trub on a larger scale.

Now, the brewery has barrels of trub picked up and composted weekly, Ferons said.

The latest UNCW student intern, Maddy Maranda, an undergrad majoring in environmental science, helped the brewery expand its recycling of the hard plastic PakTech toppers that help secure the brewery’s six-packs and four-packs of beer. The brewery accepts used PakTech from any pack of beer.

Maranda helped improve the brewery’s system for sorting the PakTech, Ferons said. She also examined how the brewery handled its stormwater runoff into the nearby Bradley Creek.

After much research and consultations with experts, Maranda proposed adding permeable pavers to Mad Mole’s parking lot to divert more water directly into the ground. 

She ultimately formed a relationship with the N.C. Coastal Federation, and Mad Mole applied for a grant to assist with stormwater mitigation. The grant funded the installation of the pavers in Mad Mole’s parking lot to collect stormwater. In return, Mad Mole is required to match the grant through its education and outreach efforts, Maranda said.

Environmental sustainability is a goal that other breweries are working toward too.

At Salty Turtle Beer Co., a brewery with taprooms in Surf City and Raleigh, they’ve made moves to reduce its use of plastic, said brewery co-founder and general manager Daniel Callender. 

The brewery, for instance, doesn’t use plastic straws and was one of the first breweries in North Carolina to use a recycled cardboard material called e6pr to hold its four- and six-packs of cans together, Callender said.

“It’s pretty cliche, but reduce, reuse and recycle is something we just kind of adopted as soon as we became a business,” he said. “Being on the beach, it’s something that we need to focus on and make sure we implement as much as we can.”
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