The Milkman: Is reusable packaging better for the environment in the 21 century?

The Milkman: Is reusable packaging better for the environment in the 21 century?

The nostalgic clinging of milk bottles is  back in trend due to the craze of the 80s fashion and major blockbusters, promoting muted colors of polaroids and elecro music of this iconic era.

Not only in the countryside, but also in big cities all over the world, this catchy trend wave, reinforced by sustainability consciousness, is bringing back the pale straight jeans, rainbow sweaters, and, yes, milk subscriptions.

But is it reasonable to believe that we can go back to this lifestyle of conscious consumption in the 21st century?

Let’s first look at reusable packaging from the past, when this was the only shopping option.

  1. History and previous usage of reusable packaging.

Before mass travel, mass deliveries and globalization, products were mostly grown at home, purchased at local markets, delivered by famers. Only local and seasonal goods existed – with very little packaging, or none at all, and products had a very short expiration date. Families were living together, therefore food was used up quickly. Stay-at home-moms and house keepers were always available to pick up fresh food or receive dairy deliveries so the cold chain was never broken for perishable products.

In 1975, for instance, 94% of milk in the UK was delivered by a milkman to the doorstep, but newer research from 2016 by Greenpeace shows that this percentage has dropped to only 3%.

In other countries, like the Netherlands, dairy products, vegetables, fruit juices and others were sold in reusable packaging until not that long ago, but currently supply chain planning is optimized for single-use alternatives.

  1. Why did we step away from reusable packaging?

It is difficult to pinpoint one reason for the growth of single-use packaging over reusable, but logistics and profit for the food suppliers would definitely be at the top of the list. The rise of supermarkets provided customers with convenience, choice between many brands and product types, the option to shop on-demand and experiment with different goods.

With a 50% reduction of households with a stay-at-home parent and the rise of single-person households, the convenience of shopping less and more diverse products has had an immense impact on commodity distribution and packaging.

For food providers, on the other hand, supermarket shopping has optimized logistics with deliveries, since many different products can be sold at the same location. Compared to the delivery of 6 000 SKUs to regular 1960s grocery stores, 50 000 SKUs are currently provided in a nowadays supermarket. What is more, with the rise of single-use packaging, providers of packaged goods no longer have to take care of collecting, washing, and re-distributing of packaging when the customer can simply dispose of it when no longer needed. Logisctics are futher eased by modern single-use packaging, which extends the shelf life of perishable goods with qualities such as heat retention, cooling, grease barriers, ease of transportation.

In order to discover whether reusable packaging can compete with all the benefits in modern day food supply chain, it is firstly necessary to look at the different types of reusable packaging and how they can be implemented.

  1. What types of reusable packaging are out there?

It is very important to define what reusable packaging actually is and in which different cases it can be applied to. Without this definition, it becomes easy, even lucrative, for companies to intentionally or unintentionally apply greenwashing to their packaging campaigns, without a clear idea of what their packaging is designed for.

Firstly, reusable packaging needs to be created out of materials, purposed for reuse (such as glass,for example, which can be infinitely recycled and re-made without downgrading its quality, whilst also having a long technical lifespan). Secondly, packaging, meant to be reused, needs to be designed with this purpose in mind and all facilities need to be provided in order to accommodate such reuse.

One needs to define whether the purpose of the packaging is to be, say, refilled, or returned, or remodelled into something else, along with instructions how to do this. If designed well, reusable packaging gives value to the product and cares for its preservation, providing a much more visually captivating look than a recyclable plastic bottle, for example.


Well-designed repurposed packagings, for instance, may include garment packs, which turn into clothes hangers, light bulb boxes, convertible to lampshades, compostible packaging that contains seeds, which go into the ground together with the packaging.

In efforts to avoid any additional packaging, many resort to dispensers or mobile trucks, which allows users to refill their own containers. Goods, currently distributed like this or with more potential to be refilled in the future are: cosmetics, (such as soaps), hair care products, lotions, perfumes mineral water, juice, beer, wine, olive oil, vinegar, cereals, grains, candy.

Other goods are more difficult to completely refill, that’s why only the parent packaging can be re-used and new inside packaging or a case needs to be used each time when re-filled. Such items include cleaning products, some flavored drinks, cosmetics, tooth and mouth wash tabs, make up, dental floss, deodorant, etc.

Another way to re-use packaging is simply to return it after each use. This is usually quite easy with takeaway food containers (such as cups and plates) or festival food and beverages, as well as perishables, soft drinks, water, cosmetics, detergents, soaps.

In order to get a clear picture of the potential implementation of reusable packaging, we can now look at case studies of brands and suppliers who are already dipping their toes in these waters and looking for alternatives to single-use.

  1. Case studies

American startup Loop (founded in 2019) has tried to encourage the implementation of reusable packaging for many types of goods, such as household essentials, beauty products, and food. They currently report an 80% return rate, due to a deposit system, which can vary, depending on the item purchased.

British packaged consumer goods company Unilever has chosen a different approach and has set up refill stations for multiple cosmetic and cleaning products at superstores across Mexico, US and Chile. So far, they have also made attempts to improve the shipping footprint by delivering via an electric tricycle in some of their locations.

Some European retailers, like Asda and Waitrose, have been offering popular brands in dispensers for a while but the range of offerings is yet to expand.

It is interesting to note that in countries like Japan, refillable detergents already represent 80 to 98% of the market for some brands, which shows really good success rates for this type of product.

A curious case study is a Chile-based retailer Algramo, which targets families of low income. The purpose of the brand is to provide its customers with only the quantity needed without excess purchasing and without paying extra for packaging. In this case, a dispensing system with reusable containers improves flexibility in quantity without extra charge for packaging.

Another innovative approach comes from Czech company MIWA, who has provided a new way of thinking about dispensing systems. It has designed sets of distribution facilities, which can be filled with the producer’s goods and sealed, then cleaned and reassembled by MIWA. Relying on smart technology, the refillable dispensers and respective containers can be registered, and the consumer can pay only for the product used via an app, where they can also find crucial information such as product expiration date, traceability, etc. According to MIWA’s data, this reduces environmental impact of the goods purchased by 71%.

A Canada-based company, known to many for its sustainable attempts and animal cruelty-free products, is cosmetics brand Lush. Their approach is trying to sell as many products as possible without packaging. This goes mostly for solid goods or goods that can be mixed with water post-purchase. For liquid products, Lush uses recycled plastic containers, which can be brought back to the store in return for a free product (for instance, 5 returned pieces of packaging can get one a free face mask). This incentive, however, doesn’t seem enough or maybe isn’t practical enough, as their US return rate is currently only 17%. Handling of the returned packaging is not so easy either, so instead of cleaning them (which, in itself, is an arduous process), they are broken down and recycled into new containers. Even though there seems to be a lot of learning for this brand, it provides a good case study and food for thought on which methods could prove successful, which not and why.

It is time to look into the pros and cons of those paths to reusable packaging, in order to determine whether and which of them would be feasible for the modern-day reality.

  1. Pros and cons of reusable packaging

The very reason we’re turning to reusable packaging nowadays speaks for its biggest advantage over single-use alternatives. According to various research data, conducted by countries across Europe, roughly 40% of plastics and 50% of paper waste are due to packaging. A research from 2019 by Eurostat shows additional data that packaging is responsible for 36% of solid waste.

It is still very unclear how much of plastic waste is currently being recycled. A quote from the World Economic Forum points out that only 14% of plastic packaging is actually collected for recycling across the globe.

A big portion of the waste we create with single-use packaging is exported to countries such as China or Turkey (61% for the UK, British Plastic Federation, 2019). That makes it difficult for us to monitor the direct consequences of single-use plastics.

Except for adding a great cost to producers, many types of packaging cannot be infinitely recycled, even if a reliable recycling chain is established. PET bottles, for instance, are thermoset plastics. This means they contain polymers that couldn’t be remelted into a new polymer bond even with extreme heat applied.

Glass, on the other hand (which is a preferred material for reusable packaging) can be infinitely recycled without loss of quality.

A table by Eleanor Carter provides some information about the production emissions of frequently used packaging materials. It is surprising to see that often times production emissions for single-use plastics are even higher than presumably typical multi-use materials.






Production emissions []

PET 4.0324
HDPE 3.2698
Folding boxboard 1.5940
White glass 1.3260
Aluminium 19.5720

It is also worth looking at other, often overlooked advantages of multi-use packaging. Logistics and monitoring in supply systems, for instance, can be greatly improved, using electronic tagging. This can be cheaply implemented to reusable packaging, more so than to single-use versions.

There are also social benefits to switching to zero or reusable packaging. Support of local businesses, purchasing seasonal items with better quality and better transparency indicators are just some of the advantages. Shopping experience could also be enhanced, and cost of products can be distributed more fairly towards farmers or product quality, rather than used for packaging.

In order to make the right packaging decision for a specific product, however, there are socio-ethical, as well as environmental factors that need to be considered.

Transparency and quality, for instance, can come at the cost of convenience due to the limited flexibility of zero or reusable packaging shopping.

Hygiene is also a hinderance in global change of shopping habits. Used milk bottles, dispensers and perishables packaging can be extremely difficult to clean properly and sometimes also need to be disassembled. This is very time- and cost-effective and, if not carried out properly, could lead to many logistical and quality issues.

Another big factor is the participation of consumers in reusing or returning packaging. Unrecyclable or laminated materials are often used for returnable packaging, but many users just dispose of it regardless. What is more, even if the respective packaging is made from a recyclable material but is intended for, say 50 uses, it will still be environmentally costly to reuse it only 10 times. In this case, a single-use alternative could be the more suitable option.

An often-discussed aspect of environmental impact, when looking at reusable packaging, is distribution and collection. There are several phases in transportation that come into play – from manufacturer to distribution center, from distribution center to retailer, from retailer to consumer, then return from consumer to retailer or an allocated station. Here, distance is key, as well as means of transportation.

To sum up, the biggest impact would have transportation distances, return rates, cleaning, and maintenance. Another factor worth mentioning is production and packaging damage, which means that technically it would be next to impossible to have 100% return rates.

An equation I found in Eleanor Carter’s thesis ‘A Comparative Life Cycle Analysis of The Modern Milkman’s Reusable Glass Milk Bottle’ (original source is Manfredi et al from 2012) illustrates very well the impact of all of these factors on packaging:

+ (+(1−)(/) )+(1−)(− ∗(/) )


Ev = production emissions.

Erecycled = emissions from recycled material input.

ErecyclingEoL = emissions from the recycling process from which the credit from avoided virgin materials are deducted.

Ed = emissions from the energy recovery process of the material.

A = allocation factor of burdens and credits between recycled and virgin materials between the two life cycles. An allocation factor of 1 reflects a 100:0 approach where credits are given to the recycled content and an A factor of 0 reflects a 0:100 approach where credits are given to 38

This equation can help calculate different packaging scenarios in order to establish where reusable packaging would contribute to environmental well-being and what the virgin material should be.

Lastly, consumer acceptance is a deciding factor in the implementation of reusable packaging. There are several barriers in that regard that have been established so far, which could impede changing shopping habits globally: inconvenience (bringing back used packaging, refilling), initial cost of more expensive packaging and/or dispensing system, inadequate communication of the purpose of the packaging, higher pricing of products, initial deposit for returnable items, etc.

Having observed some background facts and case studies, as well as advantages and disadvantages, it would be beneficial to make a proposal for the implementation of reusable packaging in the 21st century to the best of our abilities.

  1. How is reusable packaging different and relevant in 21st century?

Experience rather than convenience

Firstly, it is important to accept the inconvenience of this new way of shopping, compared to online and supermarket shopping, which have been the preferred methods in recent years. Instead, it is important to market the experience of zero or reusable plastic shopping as more authentic and try to enhance shopping areas’ visual and tactile stimulation.

Standardization of packaging

Reusable packaging offers the opportunity to implement a standard size, shape, weight, etc. to packaging, regardless of which brand they belong to. This way logistics, transportation and impact can be optimized, as well as storage space (during transportation, in store, in user’s home) can be reduced.


This is an exciting opportunity for packaging designers to get creative and innovative. Areas, which can be considered are lightness, yet strength of packaging material, resealability, user experience when refilling, reduction of product losses and damage during transportation phase, etc.

Home grocery deliveries

With the rise of home grocery deliveries, it would be convenient to pair deliveries with packaging returns to the store. Here, again, standardized packaging might be helpful.

Visual imperfections

Even with the best of care, many reusable bottles, jars and containers would begin showing visual imperfections after several uses. Even when optimizing production materials and treatments, it is important to note that imperfections will be visible eventually. It is critical to learn to accept the visual imperfections as part of the packaging journey and not judge the product quality based on this.

Plastic Packaging Tax

Several countries have already introduced a plastic packaging tax. In the UK, for instance, this means that a fine of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging will be applied to every company which doesn’t meet a certain recycled content in their packaging.

In general, a returnable tax for single-use plastics can be an option for making more sustainable products more affordable.

Optimized Transportation

Most returnable packaging options (glass, aluminum) can be more energy taxing than single-use ones. Therefore, it is essential to reduce transportation emissions as much as possible – this can be done by creating more stations for collecting, shopping locally to reduce distances, using electric cars for transportation.


Even with the environmental impact in mind, most consumers would still choose the less expansive product option, regardless of sustainability. A World Economic Forum research in North America shows that 38% of questioned users buy reusable packaging based on price, and 31% – based on environmental impact.

Carbon Labelling

It is a concept that is making its way up quite quickly. A suggestion to increase awareness is to include climate impact of the product and packaging on the product label, just like it is now with ingredients and origin. This will help both users make a well-informed decision, and producers be more transparent with their packaging in the future.

Written sources:

A Comparative Life Cycle Analysis of The Modern Milkman’s Reusable Glass Milk Bottle

Eleanor Carter MSc Sustainable Development with Energy and Materials

July 2022

MSc Thesis

Supervisor: Ernst,containing%20the%20product%20is%20exhausted



Imagery sources:

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