As plastic pollution soars, companies are trying to get their milk to consumers with the smallest environmental footprint possible.
As plastic pollution soars, companies are trying to get their milk to consumers with the smallest environmental footprint possible.
December 14, 2021
Alexandre Family Farm prides itself on being America’s first certified organic regenerative dairy. It’s a large-scale operation—4,500 mature cows pastured on about 9,000 acres—and it successfully uses rotational grazing and compost applications to boost soil health, build up carbon, and foster biodiversity.
But one aspect of its operation remains contentious: the packaging. Like most dairy products in the U.S., Alexandre Family Farm’s milk and yogurt are sold in plastic jugs and containers, to the chagrin of some customers. Most plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels and more than 90 percent of it is not recycled. Instead, it fills our landfills, ends up as tiny particles in our soil and our bodies, and more than 8 million tons of it is dumped into oceans annually.
As more dairies turn to organic and regenerative practices, consumers are pushing for packaging that eliminates single-use plastics, and dairies like Alexandre are actively looking for new solutions. But, it turns out, there is no simple fix. Switching to glass milk bottles is one approach that has become popular among some consumers, but it comes with the potential for high carbon emissions and logistical challenges. New technologies, including containers made from plants, aren’t yet optimized for holding liquids. And, even if they were, our waste systems can’t process them, meaning most end up in landfills.
“We’re not happy to use plastic . . . but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies,” said Robert Brewer, Alexandre’s chief operating officer, who has been focused on finding new packaging since he was hired two years ago. “We just can’t continue to put billions of pounds of waste into the ocean and expect to have life on earth.”
“We’re not happy to use plastic, but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies.”
The dairy industry’s pursuit of new packaging also reflects the ongoing debate about whether society’s focus should be on inventing and refining disposable single-use packaging that is compostable or biodegradable or on improving recycling and reinforcing a circular economy that continues to rely on plastic. The makers of plant-based milks (almond, oat, rice, and soy)—many of which are also sold in plastic bottles—face similar conundrums.
Regardless of how milk is produced, in the U.S. most of it is sold in plastic containers made from virgin high-density polyethylene, also known as HDPE or No. 2 plastic. Nearly two-thirds of milk containers sold in North America are HDPE bottles, followed by cartons (24 percent) and plastic bags (7 percent). In recent years, some dairy companies—including Alexandre Family Farm—are turning to containers made from transparent, sturdy polyethylene terephthalate, which is also known as PET or No. 1 plastic, and commonly used in water bottles.
Reba Brindley, a project manager at the University of California, San Francisco, said she gave up on buying Alexandre’s milk specifically because it came in plastic bottles—a choice she finds incompatible with the farm’s other values.
“I am impressed by their work and dedication,” Brindley said of Alexandre. “But considering how little plastic is recycled and what an inefficient process it is, I don’t see how they can be held up as an environmental example when they pump out plastic bottles . . . I just can’t handle throwing out a plastic bottle every week.”
Brindley switched to milk from the Straus Family Creamery, which comes in reusable glass containers. “There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce,” said Brindley.
Brindley is not alone in believing that glass—once the material of choice for milk bottles—is the dairy industry’s best shot at sustainability. Over the past decade, glass manufacturers have seen a resurgence of glass milk bottles across the U.S., particularly among small dairies and creameries. Some companies offer old-fashioned glass milk delivery to consumers’ doorsteps, while others offer reusable glass bottles that and can be returned to grocery stores, as in the case with Straus.
“There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce.”
But while using glass may keep plastic out of landfills, prevent some toxic chemicals from leaching into our milk, and cater to our nostalgia and notions of improved taste and freshness, it’s not a panacea. Each packaging system has environmental impacts that go beyond the issue of solid waste, said Gregory Keoleian, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. Those environmental impacts stem from material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life processing and include energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use.
“There will be tradeoffs with respect to these impacts and also between packaging performance and cost,” Keoleian said.
Glass bottles weigh much more than other containers, so they take more energy to transport and result in higher transport-based emissions per volume of packaged milk. Extracting raw materials for new glass is also energy intensive, fueled mainly by natural gas. And only 31 percent of all glass containers are recycled—most end up in landfills, where they will take more 1 million years to decompose. Despite these drawbacks, when Keoleian and his colleagues studied milk packaging systems, they found that glass refillable bottles can outcompete single use containers such as plastic HDPE milk jugs and gable-top cartons with respect to energy and carbon footprints as long as they are reused at least five times—and the savings increases at higher reuse rates.
Keoleian’s research also found that refillable plastic bottles—which are not used much today— can have an even lower environmental impact than glass because they can have higher reuse rates. But the most sustainable choice for milk packaging? He says it’s lightweight plastic pouches, which are used mostly in Canada and have a significantly smaller environmental impact than reusable glass or plastic. Aluminum, which is recycled at very high rates, could also serve as a sustainable packaging for milk.
But most consumers want traditional bottles, Alexandre’s Brewer said, hence his dairy’s search for an alternative to standard plastic. Brewer was vice-president of sales and distribution for Straus from 2004 to 2008, overseeing its glass bottle reuse system. At the time, a significant number of retailers and distributors were willing to offer glass bottles, Brewer said. Today, it’s difficult to get them into large grocery chains.
The system, he adds, is a logistical nightmare. Straus buys the glass bottles, made of approximately 30 percent recycled glass, sanitizes, fills, and counts them. They are then sent to a distributor, who is charged a deposit. The distributor delivers the bottles to retailers who, in turn, are charged another deposit, and retailers then sell the milk to customers, who get charged yet another deposit. The whole process is then repeated backwards, until the used bottles are returned to Straus for sanitizing and refilling. In all, it entails six different accounting steps, Brewer said. In addition, the bottles can break during shipping, increasing costs.
So while Straus bottles are reused an average of five times before they are recycled (that number is primarily driven by the consumer return rate, which prior to the pandemic was close to 80 percent, and by ink wearing out on bottle labels), it’s a limited retail niche.
“It’s not a bad system, it’s just that we were told clearly by retailers and distributors that they were not willing to do it,” Brewer said. “They told us, ‘If you want to come into our stores, you have to put the milk in plastic bottles.’ So the choice was existential.”
A spokesperson from Straus Family Creamery, which has bottled its milk in reusable glass since 1994, told Civil Eats that “it may take longer for some stores to adapt and implement new sustainability programs.” But, the creamery added, the bottle logistics and accounting are not onerous once in place and “when retailers realize that there is demand among their shoppers . . . they are willing to invest time in developing the program with us and our distributor partners.” The creamery’s analysis has shown that its glass reuse program prevents approximately 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of the landfills each year.
There’s one limiting factor: Straus operates a regional distribution model, with its milk sold in California and other Western states, primarily in natural food co-ops and independent grocers, as well as a few retail chains (Sprouts, Whole Foods, and Fred Meyer). Because it’s minimally processed, the milk’s shelf life is also shorter, making it more difficult to sell in other regions.
“The reusable glass program would be more costly to implement in a national distribution model,” the spokesperson said.
With glass no longer an option, Alexandre Family Farm is searching for other green options to replace its PET bottles. Brewer has worked with the Climate Collaborative—a natural foods industry group of companies committed to climate action—on finding new packaging solutions and assessment tools.
Virgin plastic bottle alternatives, including recycled plastics and plant-based bioplastics, are being rapidly developed and have attracted significant attention from the food industry, Brewer said. But for now they’re mostly suitable for dry packaging.
“The packaging is in the final steps [of development] and then it’s about manufacturers being willing to make the packaging,” he said.
Bioplastics—the most commonly used being polylactic acid or PLA—have characteristics similar to plastic, but are made from plants such as corn, sugarcane, sugar beet, or cassava. Bioplastics help companies continue with their disposable, single-use packaging status quo. But because they are biodegradable or compostable, and because they can reduce non-renewable energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions, they’re championed as a greener solution to stemming the growth of plastic pollution. Bioplastics are now used to make everything from bottles to cups to cutlery and bags.
But PLA and other plant-based materials are far from perfect. Bioplastics also require a complex mixture of chemical additives to improve their functionality—and because of those additives, biopastics are just as toxic as other plastics, according to a 2020 study. And PLA requires specialized, high-temperature industrial composting facilities to decompose. Because few such facilities exist and because most consumers assume they can simply dispose of plant-based packaging in garbage or compost bins, most PLA containers end up in oceans or landfills where they emit methane and don’t actually decompose for hundreds of years. And when PLA containers are recycled alongside other plastics they tend to look nearly the same, making it impossible to separate them out and prevent them from contaminating recycling streams.
And while bioplastics tend to generate fewer emissions in their lifecycle—since the crops used to make them absorb carbon out of the atmosphere—those crops also tend to be genetically modified, grown using monoculture agricultural practices, and sprayed heavily with pesticides. They also require a lot of water and take vast amounts of land out of food production. Bioplastics don’t create as enough of a barrier between milk and the outside world, meaning they let in some gas and light that degrades and eventually allows the milk to spoil faster, Brewer said. They are also more brittle than plastic bottles.
PLA milk bottles aren’t yet available—but the dairy is looking into bottles currently being developed by PLA Bottles EU, a company based in the Netherlands which has an ambitious goal of collecting 90 percent of its bottles after use, 90 percent of the time, assuring they do not end up in landfills. Alexandre is also evaluating containers made with PLA beads by Gaia Herbs and Earth Renewable Technologies as an alternative to its plastic yogurt tubs.
One major challenge, Brewer said, is the fact that legacy plastic packaging manufacturers tend to be unwilling to run unfamiliar resins through their molding machines, because they fear gumming up the machines. Cost is also an issue since testing milk bottles made with custom molds is a sizeable investment, he said. Now that Alexandre Family Farm has become a successful brand and has increased its packaging purchases, the company has a better chance of convincing plastic manufacturers to try something new and it can afford to pay for testing the alternatives.
“We’ve grown a lot in the past few years,” said Brewer. “So now our plastic usage is large enough that it’s a priority for us.”
Another option Alexandre is exploring for its packaging is post-consumer (recycled) plastic. It’s another recent trend in the food industry, with several U.S. beverage companies already in the process of switching to bottles made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). While no dairy company in the U.S. is currently using such technology, it’s been deployed in other parts of the world. The Austrian milk processing company NÖM AG introduced a milk bottle made of 100 percent rPET in 2019. Similarly, the Dutch multinational dairy cooperative FrieslandCampina and New Zealand dairy producer Lewis Road Creamery have both switched to bottles made entirely of recycled PET.
Alexandre Family Farm is also teaming up with King Plastics, a food container manufacturer in Orange, California, to do a test run of a yogurt container made of chemically recycled polypropylene (rPP), by using the latest advances in plastic recycling.
Polypropylene—one of the most widely used materials in packaging for consumer goods, including yogurt tubs—is currently marked with number 5 and is one of the least recycled post-consumer plastics (just under 1 percent of it is recycled). Most curbside recycling programs don’t accept it. Since it’s difficult to distinguish between food grade and non-food grade containers during the sorting process, what little polypropylene is recycled is potentially contaminated and unavailable for food-grade packaging. Instead, most is reused by decking companies, furniture manufacturers, and crate and bin makers.
Enter chemical recycling, an emerging industry that promises a solution to the plastic pollution problem by recycling plastics in an infinite recycling loop. The process is purported to “purify the plastics” at the molecular level and restores them to a “virgin-like” quality that’s devoid of contaminants, colors, or odors. Chemically recycled plastic can potentially be reused an infinite number of times, while mechanically recycled plastic falls apart after just a few uses. Chemical recycling also has the potential to recycle multiple plastics and composites together and may still be used for food-grade packaging.
When it comes to polypropylene, a new chemical recycling process invented by Procter & Gamble could vastly increase the amount recycled. PureCycle is developing facilities to collect, sort, and chemically recycle polypropylene plastic. The company will provide chemically recycled resin (rPP) to King Plastics to make the test yogurt containers for Alexandre Family Farm.
Tom Bryan, director of sales with King Plastics, said chemical plastic recycling has many advantages over manufacturing new packaging with plant-based bioplastics. Not only does chemical recycling result in a cleaner product that’s food-grade safe as compared to mechanically recycled polypropylene, Bryan said, but container manufacturers across the country who currently use virgin polypropylene could use existing machines and processes. If they wanted to make containers with bioplastics, on the other hand, they would have to invest in new equipment infrastructure.
“A lot of brands are trying to find compostable, disposable plastic so the customer can feel good about throwing it away. But that’s a false narrative meant to convince customers they don’t bear any responsibility for those products.”
“We think chemical recycling is a faster and better solution,” Bryan said. “There’s already a recycling infrastructure in the U.S., the pieces are there, and there’s more investment year after year. And recycling feeds into the circular economy.”
Even if manufacturing compostable or biodegradable containers made of plant-based material was easier or less costly, Bryan added, the lack of industrial composting facilities that can handle these products makes their current use questionable.
“A lot of brands are trying to find compostable, disposable plastic so the customer can feel good about throwing it away,” Bryan said. “But it’s a false narrative meant to convince customers they don’t bear any responsibility for those products. Right now, the technology just isn’t there.”
But chemical recycling’s technology is also untested and not yet commercially viable. So while billions in capital are being invested and startups in the U.S. and Europe have announced plans to build chemical recycling facilities, critics point out that quickly building enough commercial plants to make a dent in the plastic pollution problem doesn’t seem feasible. And a report published last year by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) reveals that the chemical recycling process generates chemical byproducts toxic to the environment and to human health, is extremely energy intensive, and produces high greenhouse gas emissions.
“Chemical recycling . . . is not at present, and is unlikely to be in the next 10 years, an effective form of plastic waste management,” the report’s authors conclude.
Keoleian, the University of Michigan professor, said the U.S. should focus on developing a circular economy that aims to reduce all lifecycle impacts, including the resource extraction stage and energy use, not just solid waste. Reducing overall consumption and production of plastic is also key, he said, as is improving the recycling process. A major challenge is that the market doesn’t currently drive a circular economy, he added, because markets for recyclables are weak, meaning “the costs of petroleum and the natural gas feedstocks needed to make plastic are relatively inexpensive compared to the value of recycled resin.” The cost of plastic disposal is also relatively cheap. In addition, he said, the costs of climate change aren’t currently reflected in the economy.
“Until we put a price on carbon and better value the use of nonrenewable resources, it will be more difficult to create sustainable solutions,” Keoleian said.
While none of the milk packaging choices are impact-free, it’s clear that consumers have a role in reducing the environmental impact of the milk they buy. And they can start by using it all before it spoils. Keoleian’s research showed that packaging impacts can be dwarfed by the impacts of consumer food waste.
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