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Environment & Climate Change

What kind of container should be used for milk?

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Some dairies are offering refillable glass bottles for milk, but there are environmental drawbacks to using glass.
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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Plastic jugs have been the most used container for milk since introduced in the late 1960s. The molded plastic with handles made a gallon of milk more convenient to pick up.

There’s a glut of recycled plastic. In some cases, plastic is going to the landfill instead of being reused.

There’s been some research into dairy products. The most common container for milk is plastic.

Some dairies have tried what’s been used in the past: glass.

“We did some research on a dairy here in Ann Arbor and we found that the bottles were being refilled at least eight times before, you know, they would either be not returned or they would break,” said Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.

He says glass can be a decent alternative, but there are drawbacks.

“Glass is heavy, so it takes energy to transport. The other is after the glass bottle is reused multiple times, if it breaks, you want to make sure it gets recycled and recycling rates for glass are also low.”

Paperboard cartons could be used, but recycling is also low with that material.

Keoleian says a refillable durable plastic bottle made of HDPE or polycarbonate would be light. It could really reduce energy and emissions footprints and also reduce solid waste.

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Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
Paperboard cartons preceded the plastic milk jug. The market for recycling this kind of paperboard is not great.

But, it's unclear whether people will embrace losing the convenience of a throw away container.

The container is just one part of the complicated issue of food packaging. Keoleian says consumers have other aspects to consider. For example, milk itself has a larger environmental footprint than its container. Making sure we don’t waste milk would help even more than a better container in terms of the environment.

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