With all the problems plastic pollution is now known to be causing, people are inevitably asking what we used to do before plastic became a part of our lives (and seemingly a part of every single product you buy or use).
Once upon a time, milk was delivered to your doorstep by milk floats (battery powered vehicles that existed decades ago) in glass bottles. Yes, glass. Consumers would use the milk and then put their bottles out for collection the next day. The bottles would get sterilized and then used again. A bit like fizzy drinks bottles that had return deposits, which also existed in the 60’s and 70’s, it seems that glass bottles may now be coming back into fashion.
Dairy firms across the UK have seen a surge in demand for milk in glass bottles since the start of 2018. Research by the BBC found that 17 out of 20 dairy businesses have seen a rise in sales of glass milk bottles to homes and businesses amid concern over plastic waste this year. Some reported existing customers asking to switch from plastic to glass, while others reported new customers asking for glass bottles. According to the BBC, this is happening up and down the country:
- In Lanarkshire, Thomsons has seen a 7% increase in demand for glass since January
- In County Durham and South Wales, Acorn and Brecon Milk report a 10% rise in demand
- In the South of England, milk distributors Pensworth say a 7% rise in glass sales since January has meant they’re investing in a new production line
- In Manchester, Creamline have signed up more than 1,000 new customers, with most of that growth coming from online orders
- In Carmarthen, Nigel Dragone of Nigel’s Dairy has doubled glass bottle deliveries from about 4,000 to almost 9,000 a week.
- The largest milk deliverer is Muller-owned Milk and More and they say the biggest growth area in their business is for glass-bottled milk. They reported gaining an additional 15,000 new online customers, of which 90% are ordering milk in glass bottles,” the firm says.
Bucking the trend, two big names in the industry – Arla and Dairy Crest – do not deliver nor offer glass-bottled products and other smaller wholesale dairies contacted said they did not sell glass and had no plans to.
The benefits are currently unclear and waste charity ‘Wrap’ said “For glass to be the better environmental option from a carbon perspective, our research shows that any bottle needs to be reused at least 20 times. Less than that and the lifecycle carbon footprint would be greater than for plastic. In practice, glass bottles survive being reused around 18 times.”
More than 190,000 pints of Lanchester Dairies’ milk are delivered all over the North East every week. They have put 4,000 extra glass pints on to doorsteps weekly since Christmas. Production manager Chris Austin says this is the first time his family’s firm has seen a rise in sales in decades. “I think it’s all on the back of everyone being more aware of the environmental impact that plastics have as opposed to glass returns,” he said. “Yes, it is more expensive. But when you think you’re getting your milk delivered, by a local businessman, and some of our bottles are up to two or three years old, reused 50 or 60 times.”
Home milk deliveries have been in steady decline since the 1980s and doorstep deliveries account for just 3% of the market. The UK’s five big supermarkets say they have no plans to start stocking milk in glass bottles. Industry body DairyUK said it could not be certain of the return of the milkman and a glass-bottled pint, even though the reported trend was good news.
Of course, the energy and chemicals used to clean bottles needs to be considered, as must be the cost of bottles that disappear from the system, either by breakage or customers keeping them, but instead of seeking reasons not to make the change perhaps it’s worth remembering that milk bottles are unlikely to block sewers, get eaten by fish, get blown down streets by the wind or contribute to enormous landfills. You’ve never heard of the great Pacific milk bottle patch have you? There’s a reason for it.