Hand holding bottle of milk

Plastic or glass milk bottles? Crate expectations

Can glass milk bottles return to replace plastic? Where have they been? Has Sir David Attenborough changed how we think, and drink? Can your local dairy deliver?
By Paul Quinn    |      Published:  01 May 2018    |      19 minute read

For most people in the UK, for much of the 20th century, the dawn chorus was a mix of birdsong, a humming electric milk float and clinking glass bottles.

In the days before most households had a fridge, or a car, having a pint or two delivered to your front door was the best way to make sure you had fresh milk at breakfast. And traditionally the milk always came in pint glass bottles, rather than plastic.

Electric milk float with crew delivering glass milk bottles, 1970s
Electric milk float and "milkies" in Stoke-on-Trent, 1970s
Credit: Harding Bros Manor Farm

But between 1975 and 2015, the amount of milk sold in glass bottles shrank by 90%. It got to the stage where, in 2014, the huge milk supplier Dairy Crest announced it was closing its last glass bottling plant and switching to plastic-only milk bottles.

At the time, the media and public reaction to this news was driven more by nostalgia – for an old tradition – than by environmental concerns. It feels different now.

Is glass really greener for the white stuff?

On the face of it, glass certainly looks like the most eco-friendly milk container. The milk industry was even an early adopter of bottle reuse. Milk bottles are routinely returned, washed and reused several times before being recycled into new glass.

And those milk floats were famously battery-powered electric vehicles – albeit pretty sedate ones.

But technologies, fashions and lifestyles changed in the late 20th century. With the coming of cheap, light, throwaway plastic containers, the relatively heavy-but-fragile glass milk bottle began to be viewed as a quaint novelty.

Archive image of schoolchildren drinking milk from small glass bottles
Glass bottles of milk were given out in schools pre-1970s
Credit: WikimediaCommons

And with cut-price, loss-leading supermarket prices, the idea of paying to have your milk delivered became less appealing too. Supermarkets, rather than local dairies, gradually took control over milk prices, paying farmers less, and phasing out milk in glass bottles almost completely.

Now, though, it seems the glass milk bottle might be having a renaissance. Since the BBC screened Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II in 2017, drawing attention to the dire problem of plastic waste in our oceans, thousands of people have been inspired to find alternatives to all kinds of plastic containers. Including milk bottles.

And they've been taking to social media to tell the world ...

Dairies across the country have been reporting a sudden upsurge in demand for milk deliveries in glass bottles. Lots of milkmen/women (or “milkies”) are reporting more new orders for milk in glass than they’ve ever had – though admittedly starting from a low ebb. Suppliers are rushing to milk the new demand.

Is it just a temporary blip? A fashionable foodie fad for the fancy few? Or could glass milk bottles really make a proper comeback?

To find out, let’s look at how glass bottles fell from grace in the first place.

How we lost our glass bottle

1. Tetra Pak – the first milk bottle snatcher.

3 black and white Tetra Pak adverts with children drinking milk
Tetra Pak advertising from the 1960s
Credit: Tetra Pak

The first big change in glass milk bottle use in the UK came in the late 1960s, when those cute little 1/3rd pint school milk bottles were replaced by the new, seemingly space-age technology of the Tetra Pak.

Initially a unique little tetrahedron shape, made from novel hybrid material (paper, plastic and aluminium), Tetra Pak cartons took off because, crucially, they were lighter and safer to use than glass.

Larger wax-coated cardboard milk cartons with a gable top had been around for decades, especially in the US. But from the 1970s the newer plastic-coated cartons quickly became the ubiquitous milk and juice containers in the UK, Europe and beyond.

By 1980, Tetra Pak was making over 30 billion drink containers per year around the world. Within 30 years that had gone up to more than 140 billion a year. (And that’s not counting all the cartons from rival makers like Elopak and SIG.)

Gable-top carton of Silk almond milk
Gable-top carton of almond milk
Credit: Thomson200/Wikimedia-Commons

Here in the UK those types of cartons aren’t often used much nowadays for fresh cow’s milk, having been widely replaced by poly bottles, as we’ll see in a minute. But they’re still the main choice for long-life UHT milks, non-dairy alternatives and other drinks.

One big problem with Tetra Pak-type cartons was always that, although technically recyclable, there weren’t many places that could actually recycle them. This is because of their mix of bonded-together materials.

That situation has gradually improved, and the manufacturers have taken steps to be more sustainable. But, for all their usefulness, plastic-lined cartons have contributed to the world’s waste mountain.

2. The poly milk bottle – plastic takes a grip.

Empty plastic "poly" milk bottles with red and green caps
The most popular milk container: the "poly" plastic bottle

For fresh milk, the most popular container of the past 30 years in the UK has been the semi-transparent white polyethylene jug-style bottle. It has the built-in handle for lifting and pouring heavier sizes.

Unlike plastic water bottles, which are usually PET (polyethylene terephthalate), milk containers are more often made from high-density polyethylene, HDPE. You can tell from the recycling code: HDPE has a number 2 in the little triangle (PET is number 1).

HDPE is actually a bit more expensive than PET as a material, and it generally isn’t as see-through. But it may be more popular with milk bottle manufacturers because it’s easier to mould a handle in an HDPE bottle.

One alternative which hasn’t completely caught on in the UK is buying milk in large plastic bags or pouches, which you can put into a jug at home. It’s big in Canada and elsewhere. A decade ago milk pouches were hailed as eco-friendly and even the future of milk packaging by some, because the bags use less plastic than a poly bottle. But they haven’t really taken off as predicted in the UK. And the bags are just yet more plastic that needs to be disposed of.

Bag of milk in Canadian supermarket
Milk in bags - big in Canada
Credit: fw_gadget_CC2_flickr

What happens to all those plastic milk bottles?

A 2017 government report called 'Turning Back the Plastic Tide' pointed out that UK households use about 13 billion plastic bottles a year, counting milk and other drinks plus toiletries etc. That’s around 200 plastic bottles per person in the country, every year. Pretty alarming when you think about it.

While the majority of plastic bottles are PET, figures from recycling experts WRAP show that HDPE bottles are more likely to be recycled (75% of them are, in fact). That may be because you’re more likely to keep them at home, as you do with milk bottles, and then put them in your recycling bin. As opposed to buying and binning on the go, as with plastic water bottles.

Heap of empty, squashed plastic bottles ready for recycling
Even recycled plastic is still plastic, at the end of the day
Credit: Streetwise Cycle/Wikimedia Commons

WRAP was also involved in helping to design a pioneering process to recycle HDPE back into food-grade recycled HDPE (known as rHDPE) for use in new milk bottles.

The amount of recycled rHDPE material in a plastic milk bottle is now as much as 30%. The 'Dairy Roadmap' target is 50% by 2020 – though the industry has said it isn’t sure it can achieve that at the moment.

Developments in the past decade have meant HDPE milk bottles can now be made lighter as well, using less plastic, which is obviously a good thing. But it’s still plastic, and ultimately adds to the waste problems affecting our oceans, land and food chain.

UK Plastics Pact

The latest initiative led by WRAP is the UK Plastics Pact. This brings together lots of the biggest manufacturers, packagers and retailers to help "create a circular economy for plastics". One aim is that, by 2025, 100% of all plastic packaging will either be reusable, recyclable or compostable. And they will contain a minimum of 30% recycled material.

It's positive, but we don't think it's ambitious enough. We're also wary of yet more voluntary, non-compulsory targets.

For us, the Plastics Pact's most important aim is about "eliminating unnecessary single-use plastic packaging". Recycling is not the ultimate solution when it comes to plastic – and could even be a bit of a distraction. Don't get us wrong, we're big supporters of recycling – Friends of the Earth spearheaded the 2003 UK Recycling Act, after all. But with plastic, in particular, the real focus should be on drastically reducing the amount being produced.

Plastic carries such a high environmental threat that its use should be restricted to only the most essential items where's there's little or no choice. Unnecessary plastics need to be phased out. No one can really argue that plastic milk bottles are essential, especially when glass is a ready-made alternative.

So why isn’t everyone switching back to glass, straight away? As usual, the answers aren’t as simple as we’d like...

Glass bottle of milk with stripy paper straw
Glass bottle of milk with stripy paper straw
Credit: FreeFoodPhotos

Glass versus plastic – the pros and cons

Here are our responses to some of the anti-glass arguments we often hear.

1. Doesn't glass-making use lots of energy?

It’s true that making glass is a pretty energy-intensive process. Glass is made using raw materials like silica (from sand), soda ash and limestone, which are heated to about 1,600°C until they melt together, and then cooled to form glass – in this case in bottle shape.

Glass bottle being formed in a furnace
Yes we know most glass bottles are made by machine now, but it's a nice pic
Credit: Wknight94/CC3/WikimediaCommons

It takes a very hot furnace, using a lot of energy, and most often that’s generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels like gas.

On the plus side, glass industry research shows that “over the past 3 decades, energy consumption per tonne of glass produced has halved”. There are also now systems to capture and recover heat that escapes from glass furnaces – which can be used, for instance, to generate electricity or heat water for local businesses.

The other good news is that if a glass bottle is reused multiple times, its carbon footprint goes down dramatically. And fortunately, that’s exactly what happens with milk bottles.

The graph below, used by Defra in a 2007 report (originally from a US study), shows the relative amounts of energy use connected with different types of milk packaging.

Graph showing relative energy consumption for milk containers
Graph showing relative energy consumption for milk containers
Credit: Keoleian & Spitzley

You can see that although a single-use (1-trip) glass bottle, on the far left of the graph, is the most energy-intensive option, if the glass bottle is re-used enough times it becomes more energy-efficient than an HDPE bottle.

The number of times an average glass milk bottle is reused (known as trippage) is actually around 15. And it can be as much as 50 times. Overall that makes re-usable milk bottles a more energy-efficient choice than disposable plastic.

When a milk bottle becomes too scuffed or damaged to reuse, it’s recycled. Glass can be recycled indefinitely. The material's structure doesn’t deteriorate when it’s reprocessed, although the clarity can be affected if clear and coloured glass are mixed.

And when recycled glass (cullet) is used to make new bottles, 25% less energy is needed for remelting the glass.

Here's a good little video about how glass bottles are made, courtesy of international glassmaking company O-I.

The average glass milk bottle in the UK has about 35% recycled glass in it – although it can depend how much recycled glass is available. Which is a reminder that the more glass we all recycle, the more recycled glass gets used, and the more energy is saved.

Another positive recent development is the all-electric glass furnace. Combined with renewable power sources, this can also slash carbon emissions from glass production.

Cleaning reusable bottles does involve heat and some chemical sterilising solutions. So there’s an environmental cost there, but it’s hard to compare exact figures for this.

2. Isn't glass too heavy?

It’s undeniable that a glass bottle is usually quite a bit heavier than a same-size plastic bottle. And extra weight can increase transportation costs and, in theory carbon footprint, or “global warming potential”.

But the good thing about milk is that it’s possible to get it delivered from relatively local dairies. It’s true that a small amount of the milk in our shops may be imported (from Ireland or continental Europe), but it’s good to encourage the more local milk providers anyway. And it means the haulage costs shouldn’t be as high as for some other bottled products, such as wine.

And even better if the milk is delivered on a good-old battery-powered electric milk float – especially if the electricity is from renewable sources. That would counter the concern about the carbon footprint of glass transportation.

Classic electric milk float, loaded up with glass bottles
Classic electric milk float, loaded up with glass bottles
Credit: Brian Snelson/Flickr/CC2/WikimediaCommons

New glass production techniques mean glass bottles can be thinner and lighter than they used to be – which reduces materials and transportation costs. Glass bottles are now around 30% lighter than a few decades ago.

The other consideration is personal travel emissions. If everyone in a street has their milk delivered in glass bottles by one electric milk float, that's far better for the environment than everyone driving individually in their cars to the supermarket to buy milk in plastic bottles.

3. Isn't glass expensive?

Cost is often the decider for most shoppers. The price charged to customers for milk delivered in glass bottles ranges from about 60p to £1 a pint, with organic milk at the higher end of the range. There is often a deposit scheme, so you can get some of that money back when you return the bottle.

So yes, you could argue it’s not exactly competing with the loss-leading bargain-basement supermarket milk, which can be as low as £1 for four pints in a big poly bottle (the 4-pint plastic bottle is by far the most popular milk container in the UK).

The size of glass bottles is relevant to price if you’re comparing glass pints versus multi-litre plastic jugs. In the US they seem able to make much bigger glass milk bottles, with ridged and grippable designs to minimise slippage. Why can’t we do that here? Supermarkets could definitely do more to offer wider choice in glass too.

Large grippable glass milk bottle on table
In the US you see easy-grip 4-pint glass milk bottles
Credit: Barnimages

The real costs of plastic

More and more people are coming to realise the uncomfortable truths about disposable plastics.

First, they don't magically disappear when you dispose of them. Almost all the plastic ever made still exists in some form.

And even when you do the right thing and recycle your plastic bottles – which often end up being downcycled into a fleece jacket or maybe a road surface – the plastic will carry on shedding particles into the environment. Eventually washed into our rivers and oceans.

We'll be paying to clean this up for decades or even centuries to come. So cheap plastic has turned out to be a lot more expensive than expected.

We’re going to say something controversial now too, and we know it might sound a bit middle-class, but bear with us. Could it be that milk has become too cheap?

There’s a clear reason to say so. If retailers are charging less per litre of milk than it costs to produce (which they often have been), that loss has to be borne somewhere. And it’s the farmers, not to mention the cows and the environment, who tend to suffer in the drive for ever-cheaper milk.

If the full costs were factored into the retail price of milk – including the cost of plastic waste disposal – the price differential between glass and plastic would shrink. And that could come about if a general single-use plastic tax is introduced.

Supermarket fridge shelves stacked with varieties of milk
High volume, low price is the norm for supermarket milk
Credit: Project Manhattan_CC0_WikimediaCommons

And it’s about supply and demand too. If more of us chose to put our money where our ethics are, and change our buying habits, milk producers would have to change too.

The comparison with wine is interesting. True, wine is more of a luxury item than milk, but the fact that wine is still overwhelmingly bought in glass bottles, despite all the cheaper alternatives on offer, shows that glass is as much a cultural choice as a practical or economic one. And if that’s true for wine, why not milk? (Enough middle-classness for now?)

“Kiss my glass, plastic”

The signs are positive at the moment, but it’ll take more people asking for their milk in glass bottles to make the change widespread and permanent. Most of the big supermarkets have been slow to respond – they’ll need more convincing.

The big dairy delivery chains seem more open to the glass revival. You remember earlier when we said Dairy Crest had decided to shut its glass bottling plant in 2014? Well, dairy Crest was taken over by Müller shortly afterwards, and the choice was made to retain the glass bottle facility. Good decision.

Its delivery arm, Milk & More, recently told the BBC that in the first few months of 2018 they gained “an additional 15,000 new online customers, of which 90% are ordering milk in glass bottles”.

Anecdotally, there are claims that some companies might even be struggling to keep up with the new demand. But there’s plenty of encouraging activity from some smaller dairies and local suppliers around the country. Parker Dairies in London coined the bold slogan “Kiss My Glass, Plastic”, with accompanying hashtag, obvs.

There’s a new breed of so-called micro-dairies spreading across the country too. These small, community-oriented dairy farms have fewer than 40 cows, in stark contrast to US-style mega-dairies with thousands of animals. But again these smaller dairy farms need your support to keep afloat – if you find one near you, try and use them if you can.

Some local farms provide milk vending machines. You bring your own jug (or buy a glass bottle from their machine) and fill it up with their fresh, often organic milk from the farm-gate outlet. Search online to find one nearest to you.

Nell's Dairy milk vending machine
This vending machine provides milk into glass bottles
Credit: Nell's Dairy, Oxfordshire

In some places whole villages (small ones admittedly) are getting together to switch from plastic to glass milk bottles. They see the benefits to their community of going plastic-free.

Midlands-based milk deliverers Moo Fresh, which is are actively encouraging its customers to order milk in glass makes a good point. It delivers about 5,000 gallons of milk (40,000 pints) every week – that’s over 2 million pints a year. If that was all in glass bottles, says Moo Fresh, it would prevent more than half a million 4-pint plastic bottles entering the waste system every year, whether they’re recycled or landfilled. That’s massive.

Is the glass bottle half-full or half-empty?

Of course some people will argue that we shouldn’t be buying milk at all, and that there are more problems with dairy than just the plastic containers. Dairy cattle contribute a significant amount to climate-changing greenhouse gases around the world, for one thing.

It’s encouraging to see an increase in the availability of non-dairy milk alternatives – especially oat milk, which would seem to have a lower environmental footprint than soya or almond, for example. But most of the non-dairy milks themselves come packaged in plastic-lined Tetra Pak-style cartons, not glass. So that’s not the perfect solution either.

The fact remains that, despite an encouraging rise in more planet-friendly vegan-oriented lifestyles, dairy milk is still consumed by about 90% of the UK population on a fairly regular basis.

If that many of us are going to keep using cow’s milk, we should at least try to do it in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly form possible.

That probably means locally produced, from pasture-grazed cows on a high-animal welfare organic farm, delivered on an electric milk float.

In a plastic-free, returnable glass bottle.

To get milk delivered to your door in a glass bottle, go to findmeamilkman.net to find your local dairies, then contact the dairy to make sure they’ll deliver milk in glass.

If you're looking for more ways to get plastic out of your life, join thousands of others on #PlasticFreeFriday.

Paul Quinn is a freelancer writer and editor.