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Just how environmentally friendly is the return to glass milk bottles?

In 2014 Dairy Crest, one of the UK’s largest dairies, finally stopped home deliveries of milk in glass bottles.

Just four years later, doorstep deliveries of milk in glass bottles has increased once again in the UK’s capital.

So, what about you? Are you ready to kick the plastic habit and give glass a go?

It really does seem like a no-brainer doesn’t it? Why waste huge resources, causes significant environmental damage in production and crazy waste problems after by using plastic bottles?

Surely glass is the past, present and future? As Britglass, the UK’s glass industry association, state, glass “can be recycled an infinite number of times without loss of quality, strength and functionality”. A no-brainer.


Glass milk bottles in your fridge


Your fridge, sorry to say, can reveal a lot about you. About your disposable income, potentially your ethics, quality appreciation, how influenced you are by fashion, how willing you are to prepare a meal from scratch.

How lazy you are….

And for many, milk in a glass bottle would say something impressive. It would say that you have sufficient income to shop in a particular store or buy products that cost significantly more than others available.

Glass bottles, you see, have been a food marketers dream. They generate ideas of quality, homeliness, artisan produce, chic.

They stand out from the cheap plastics dominating the shelves below.

But things are changing. Milk bottles are making a comeback and not just at the high-end grocery level.

In a recent article in the London Evening Standard, the depot manager of Parker Dairies called current interest in glass milk bottles “absolutely phenomenal”.

Of their new doorstep delivery customers, 95% were requesting glass bottles.


So what’s going on?


Let’s face it, glass is great!

Well, it is isn’t it?

Glass ticks lots of environmental boxes doesn’t it? A relatively low-carbon product made from natural resources, silica, soda ash and limestone.

One that can be recycled countless times without any degradation of quality.

And that’s the nub.

Glass does not lose quality during the recycling process.

A glass bottle can be recycled into – hey presto – another glass bottle!

The same cannot be said for plastic. A plastic bottle, made of polyethylene terephthalate, would need fresh, virgin, materials to be added to it in order for it to be recycled back into a plastic bottle.

It can be recycled but usually into fibres. Good, but not excellent.

If glass is so marvellous, why was it phased out in the first place?

When Dairy Crest stopped using glass bottles.

The Telegraph reported “The decision reflects the decline of the glass bottle as more of us consider plastic to be safer and more convenient”.

It points out 95% of milk was sold in glass bottles in 1975, falling to less than 4% in 2012.

It is currently around 3%.


There are different issues with glass and how it has been used.


With doorstep deliveries there was always an issue with bottles being knocked over by cats and foxes (or foil lids being pecked by birds).

Customers not only had the loss of milk, they had glass to clean up before getting their children to school. Bottles could also break in-transit.

Milk bottles were also heavy.

When dairy farms and dairies were local to consumers this probably didn’t matter do much.

When it comes to HGVs transporting milk bottles, weight has a dramatic impact on fuel economy and the overall carbon footprint.

Plastic was lighter, easier to pack and more suited for increasing distance.

And in those “good ‘ol days” the sterilisation of milk bottles prior to re-use wasn’t always as thorough as we’d like.

Standards have changed and nowadays the milk bottle offers a very different proposition.

Plastic is dead! Long live Glass!

With the horrendous scenes of plastic in our oceans, demand for a return to glass bottles is growing but will it ever replace plastic as before?

We’re all haunted by those images of plastic bottles and waste devastating our oceans.

In 2016, the UK’s Marine Conservation Society said that there has been 43% a rise in plastic bottles being found on Britain’s beaches.

It was this state of our waters that prompted UK high-street chain Iceland to commit that its own products will be plastic-free by 2023. Their MD, a keen surfer, has seen first-hand the impact of plastics on our coastal shores.
But perhaps glass isn’t the panacea either.
Writing in The Guardian, Lucy Siegle points out that glass comes out on top only when there is a “local” factor. She says that on a 1000km journey, a plastic jar would save 19g C02e compared to glass. Glass should be easier to recycle but a brief review of industry recycling forums (yes, really) shows how difficult it can be to match purity in glass and avoid contamination from paper labels and other materials thrown into the recycling bin. That said, over 25 billion glass bottles were recycled in the EU in 2012 – an increase of 131% from 1990.
It might be fun to wake your housemates up with rattling glass bottles as you oven the fridge at night. But maybe not so practical. Dairy Crest stopped doorstep deliveries of bottles because demand had fallen. There were reasons why consumers preferred plastic.
In the UK, milk sold in bottles is sold by the pint. Two pints = two bottles in your fridge. Or one plastic carton from the supermarket. Plastic is convenient and busy lifestyles often seem to prefer convenience over ethics. And in the 1990s and 2000s, the diversity in milk products grew. From lactose-free dairy to almond milks, plastic cartons or cardboard containers dominate the shelves.
But even then, glass is still great isn’t it?
Consider your options. The increase in demand for door-step deliveries may mean you have one local. And suddenly the milk bottle becomes feasible again. You may also find your local independent shops and smaller supermarkets may stock glass bottles (and you can always ask!). But remember that whilst glass is wonderfully tactile and can scream green credentials, you may not be saving the planet quite as much as you hoped.
Either way, there are many suggestions that products served from glass taste better. From coke to beer and definitely milk. Try a blind test and see if a cold one from the bottle is better than a can! That should help to make your mind up!