Environmental Footprint of Milk Containers

bowl of cereal

From traditional cow milk to vegan options like hemp milk, a wide variety of milk is available these days. Milk comes in three main types of packaging: the carton, the plastic jug and the glass bottle. Let’s go through the pros and cons of each of these packaging options to determine which is friendliest to our planet.

Cartons

Pros:

  • Milk cartons are lightweight, which minimizes greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to transportation. Less weight also means less material used in creating new cartons. On average a carton is 94% product and 6% container by weight.
  • Recycled cartons are used to make office paper, tissue paper, and building materials.

Cons:

  • Paper cartons can’t be recycled into new cartons. This means all milk cartons must be made from virgin materials.

Plastic Jug

Pros:

  • Plastic jugs are made of a single material and therefore can be recycled.
  • Plastic jugs are the lightest weight option of the three most common container types. On average a plastic jug is 96% product and 4% container by weight. This means they have the lowest GHG emissions related to transportation.

Cons:

  • Plastic jugs are not recycled into new plastic jugs due to sanitary concerns. Plastic jugs are typically “downcycled” into materials such as composite lumber. This means virgin plastic is used for all plastic jugs.
  • Plastic is made from fossil fuels.

Glass Bottles

Pros:

  • Glass bottles are highly recyclable. Recycled bottles can be made into new bottles.
  • Some brands such as Straus reuse bottles through a deposit system. This eliminates the energy needed to remanufacture bottles.

Cons:

  • Glass is heavy. On average a glass bottle is 75% product and 25% container by weight. Transporting milk in glass results in higher GHG emissions than transporting milk in cartons or plastic jugs.
  • Extracting new materials for new glass is energy-intensive.

While each type of container has its pros and cons, glass bottles are the most environmentally friendly option. This is due to the fact that extraction and manufacturing require the most energy in a milk container’s lifecycle. Glass bottles have a clear advantage over cartons and plastic jugs because they can be easily recycled into new bottles or even reused without remanufacturing. However, milk sold in glass bottles is usually more expensive than milk sold in cartons or plastic jugs. If milk sold in glass is too expensive, reach for the plastic jug instead. Remember to recycle your glass bottles, plastic jugs and cartons completely empty.