- Associated Press - Thursday, January 6, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of banned energy drinks that are part of a federal crackdown on the beverages are heading to a Virginia recycling center where they will be converted into ethanol and recycled aluminum and cardboard.

Wholesalers from several East Coast states started sending cases of high-alcohol, caffeinated malt beverages to MXI Environmental Services after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a crackdown on the sale of such beverages in November.

Brian Potter, vice president of operations at MXI’s Abingdon, Va., facility declined to say how much of the product is coming to his plant, but said “it’s in the range of a couple hundred trucks.”

Each truck holds 2,000 cases of the 23.5-ounce cans, and Potter said he has hired temporary workers to process the shipments and ready them for recycling.

“We’re equipped to process four truckloads a day, and we’re at full capacity,” he said. “There are about 30 different products involved, and we’ve only seen a couple of them at this point. It could go on for several months.”

MXI Enterprises is one of three facilities in the U.S. that recycle ethanol, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol, an industry group.

The FDA issued warning letters to four companies on Nov. 17 saying the beverages’ combination of caffeine and alcohol can lead to a “wide-awake drunk.” The agency called the caffeine an “unsafe food additive.” Warning letters were issued to Phusion Projects, Charge Beverages Corp., New Century Brewing Co. and United Brands Company Inc.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said at the time that evidence has shown their consumption has led to alcohol poisoning, car accidents and assaults.

Health experts have raised concerns that the caffeine can mask a person’s perception of intoxication, leading them to drink more than they typically would before passing out. Many of those who consume the drinks are college-age and underage drinkers.

The four companies decided to pull their beverages from stores or reformulate them to remove caffeine or other stimulants after the FDA’s ruling. Under pressure from states’ attorneys general, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors removed their Bud Extra, Tilt and Sparks drinks from the market two years ago.

In addition to accepting the drinks from wholesalers, MXI has a contract to take Phusion Projects’ discontinued Four Loko beverages.

MXI Environmental Services recycles alcohol-containing items such as packaged and bulk beer, wine, spirits, cosmetics and pharmaceutical byproducts.

It distills the alcohol from the products, then sells the fuel to manufacturers to be blended into gasoline, Potter said. It sells the aluminum cans to a recycler. Potter estimates it takes “30 days until it’s back on the shelf as another beer can.” It also recycles the drinks’ water, cardboard packaging and shipping pallets.

In the normal course of business, Potter says, MXI estimates that it recycles hundreds of thousands of gallons of ethanol per year, millions of gallons of water and millions of pounds of commodities, including aluminum, paper and glass.

“These are actually things that could go directly into a landfill or incinerator or some other waste process that’s not as environmentally friendly, so I think it’s a good thing,” he said.

Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control spokesman Philip Bogenberger said beer wholesalers have been buying back the canned drinks from retailers to get them off the market.

The Virginia Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents 32 distributors statewide, sent a request for its members to stop selling the drinks to retailers and to buy back inventory from the stores, said Jim Babb, a spokesman for the trade group. The group doesn’t track the total amount of beverages involved, he said.

“A lot of the members have made best-faith efforts to get them off the marketplace in a timely manner,” Babb said.

Some details are still being worked out, including arrangements for refunds or rebates from manufacturers to distributors, Babb said.

Virginia ABC agents are continuing to investigate individuals who might try to sell the banned drinks, which buyers stockpiled after the FDA crackdown was announced.

Agents last month arrested a man in Stafford County who tried to sell varieties of Four Loko on Craigslist. Virginia law requires alcohol sellers to be licensed, and selling malt beverages online is illegal, Bogenberger said.

 

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