Weaning Dairies Off the Plastic Milk Container

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I regularly peruse the aisles of supermarkets in the Bay Area to see if any new glass containers have arrived in plasticville. It appears the only glass act still around is Straus Family Creamery – a family-owned dairy farm on the shores of Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore, 60 miles north of San Francisco. The Creamery sends it bottles all over the West Coast, including Oregon, Washingon, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.

Straus, a forward-thinking producer with a delicious product, offers consumers a refund for the deposit they pay when buying milk. This creates a system of sustainability akin to the old days of the milkman delivering and picking up our bottles in wire baskets with wooden handles.

“We get 6 to 8 uses of our bottles with over 80% of customers returning them to the stores,” Albert Straus tells me. He led the conversion of the dairy to a certified organic dairy in 1993. Bottles were a natural choice because glass is inert (nothing leeches into it) and it reflects the quality of his product. Still, he says, many dairies are trying to please a market bent on the convenience of disposables.

“Consumers need to make the shift, as well, and be willing to take bottles, rent them, and bring them back, which is a little more work,” Straus says. “We have a growing consumer base that is willing to do it.”

Then why aren’t his competitors following suit? Even the state’s first raw milk dairy, Organic Pastures Company in the San Joaquin Valley, sells its 100% pasture-grazed products in plastic bottles. If that isn’t counterintuitive I don’t know what is. It’s almost like preparing a gourmet vegan Easter supper and then serving it on paper plates with plastic utensils.

The same goes for Berkeley Farms from Emeryville, Calif., which still uses plastic to house its organic products, and Horizon Organic Milk out of Colorado, America’s first organic dairy brand which is sold at many markets in California as the healthy alternative.

On its website, Horizon describes its packaging as the “safest packaging possible” housing its half-gallon and quart milk cartons in earth-friendly, recyclable opaque paperboard. It says these cartons do not contain harmful chemicals, such as chlorine, and are colored using food-safe water-based inks. It adds when recycled, the materials used in our aseptic cartons, including the polyethylene and aluminum, are recovered and used again. Sarah Loveday, communications manager at Horizon, tells me it’s not really cost effective to bottle their milk.

“It’s more expensive to purchase glass and from sustainable standpoint, the weight of transporting it to retailers would increase our carbon footprint,” says Loveday. “In the end, the additional cost would be passed onto the consumer, which we don’t want to happen.”

But what about the landfill cost? Straus observes the so-called recyclable containers are treated in plastic for durability and aren’t truly biodegradable. He should know. Some of his other products – butter and ice cream – are sold in such packages and he is working on a plan to convert them, as well.

Elsewhere in the U.S., the benefits of glass are becoming more clear. Manhattan Milk in New York city delivers organic and hormone-free milk to city folks, requiring a $15 minimum order with a $5 delivery charge, saying it is your “new local milk man.”

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In Kansas City, there’s Shatto Milk, which tells consumers it decided to use glass bottles because they keep milk colder, they’re eco friendly, and can be washed and reused as often as they are returned. Shatto adds that ” unlike paper cartons or plastic, glass imparts no foreign odor or flavor and glass bottles are most notable in history for containing farm fresh milk from the local family farm.”

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But will the dairy state of California deliver those good bottles of white? Straus says he has created a good sustainable model for bottling milk with the deposit and return system and more efficient use of water to purify the containers for reuse. “We have cut our water use from 12 gallons a minute to one gallon and a half per minute,” he says, “thereby making old 50s washing equipment more efficient.”

Guess it’s truly up to us – the consumers – to get more organic dairies to follow that model, the same way we got America to eradicate trans fats in processed foods. If we demand bottles, they will come.

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.