Glass milk bottles: Are they better than plastic?

The environmental impact plastic is high on the agenda at the moment. As people try and cut down their plastic waste, they are turning to more traditional packaging methods such as glass. Enter the debate about glass milk bottles vs plastic.

Time to jump into the issue – just how much better are glass milk bottles for the enviroment compared to plastic bottles?

The issue of plastic and it’s sustainability is everywhere at the moment. It took a long time for people to start taking notice, but thanks to a gripping episode of Blue Planet II, it looks like progress is being made.

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 have 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? Surely the environmental impact of plastic bottles alone would be reason enough to switch.

Who hasn’t seen images of plastic filled seas? But, as with most things environmental, things aren’t so clear-cut.

Buying milk in glass bottles might seem to boost your environmental credibility but does it actually make eco sense?

Are glass bottles bad for the environment?

Glass appears to tick lots of environmental boxes. A relatively low-carbon product made from natural silica, soda ash and limestone.

Infinitely recyclable, as Britglass, the UK’s glass industry association, states, glass is


without loss of quality, strength and functionality


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 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.

Why were glass bottles phased out?

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 heavy which increases transport costs due to extra fuel consumption. Plastic was lighter, easier to pack and more suited for increasing distance.

The steralisation of glass milk bottles due to be revised was also not up to modern standards. Therefore using plastic milk bottles became easier all round.

The plastic bottles were cheaper, easier to transport, and more hygienic owing to their disposable nature.

Glass milk bottles are making a comeback

Glass milk bottles are seeing a resurgence 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.


Plastic bottles are 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 a 43% 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 milk, along with its other own-label products, will be plastic-free by 2023.

Their Managing Director, a keen surfer, has seen first-hand the impact of plastics on our coastal shores.

And some interesting things are happening with plastic. Plastic derived from fossil fuels remains problematic but scientists continue to improve and reduce the environmental cost.


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 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.

As we have seen, 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.


So how do I do the “right” thing?

We know that glass production and recycling have a relatively low carbon life-cycle and impact. We know that glass is readily recyclable in most localities.

We know that glass can be recycled time and time again without it losing its integrity.

But we also recognise that glass is heavier and bulkier than plastic and therefore the carbon cost of transportation can be high.

Glass is great for local delivery but environmentally questionable at higher distances.

So what do you do?

Consider your options. You may now have the option for glass-bottle doorstep delivery.

You’d need to find out about distances from the dairy to make any judgement on the transport carbon footprint. You can also ask your local shop to stock milk in glass bottles, bearing in mind those transport issues if they opt a longer-distance supplier over a more local one purely on the basis of their packaging model.

There is one final test: Taste.

Time and time again consumers indicate that products taste better from glass bottles. Glass tends to keep liquids cooler so the decision may ultimately be psychological!

In conclusion there is no instant solution on where to use glass milk bottles or plastic milk bottles. Each have their pros and cons – ultimately we all have to do our bit to reduce plastic waste, whilst being realistic to consumer behaviours.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!

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