Carton, Jug, or Bag? Find Out Which Packaging Makes Your Milk Taste Better and Last Longer
Depending on the type of milk you buy, you may be presented with several choices in the dairy aisle: carton or jug, plastic or glass? For most of us, this isn’t usually a matter of much deliberation, but depending on your priorities there may actually be a better choice from amongst the options.
Milk cartons are made from paperboard coated with low-density polyethylene. The paperboard used is virgin (non-recycled) because it is stronger and can therefore be thinner than recycled paper, which helps to reduce its weight.
- Unlike plastic and glass jugs, cartons don’t let in much light. Since UV light can degrade vitamins A and D and riboflavin, cartons will preserve more of the healthy nutrients in your milk if you’ll be keeping it for longer.
- Even with stronger virgin paper, cartons still weigh about 1oz (25%) more than a plastic jug of the same volume – not a significant difference for most households, but worth consideration for milk haulers and suppliers who move large numbers of containers at a time.
- Production of paper requires more energy than production of plastic and glass
- Coated-paperboard is currently not recyclable in most areas, which means that milk cartons are not likely to be recycled.
Most plastic jugs are made from No. 2 plastic (also known as HDPE – high-density polypropylene). They usually come with a handle, which makes them easy to use, and are widely recyclable.
- HDPE is light, which makes it less expensive to ship and also easier for consumers to carry.
- It is also recyclable, but like milk cartons, milk jugs are made exclusively from virgin materials to prevent cross-contamination, so recycled plastic from milk jugs will be used to make other consumer goods – not more milk jugs.
- While HDPE is recyclable, it is estimated that less than 30% of plastic jugs are actually recycled, which means that most still end up in landfills where they may never decompose.
Glass bottles have long been associated with milk – especially in the days of delivery by milkman. While it may have fallen out of style in the 1950s, in favor of the milk carton, glass bottles actually have many advantages over paper and plastic.
- While the main components of glass (sand, limestone, and soda ash) are not themselves renewable, they are plentiful, and the end product is endlessly – and, in most places, easily – recyclable.
- Glass bottles returned for recycling can be sterilized and reused, unlike cartons and plastic jugs, which means that in the long run they may actually be the better choice, since the amount of energy required to sterilize and reuse them is much lesser than the amount of energy required to produce new packaging. Perhaps surprisingly, glass may be the better choice when it comes to eco-friendliness!
- Like cartons, glass bottles take a lot of energy to produce (though still less than cartons).
- They are also heavy, which means that they’re less convenient and more expensive to transport; in fact, if you filled a delivery truck with ½ gallon glass bottles of milk, the weight of the bottles alone would constitute approximately 33% of the total weight of the shipment (compared to only 5% for plastic and 7% for cartons).
Believe it or not, in some parts of the world (including Canada, Russia, U.K., many parts of South America, etc.) milk is actually sold in thin plastic bags! While this option has never been a hit here in the U.S., this type of packaging does require fewer resources to manufacture and is even more lightweight than plastic jugs, which is a great benefit for transportation. The bags are not reusable or recyclable, however, and they can be difficult to use, as anyone who has vacationed north of the border may have experienced.
If your top priority is saving money and/or the longevity of your milk, cartons are likely your best bet on both fronts. Keep in mind, though, that they’re more costly for the environment so plastic jugs are a better choice if you’d like to balance both concerns (and choose glass bottles if your top priority is going green).