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Buying Reusable Milk Containers: How and Why

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 7/26/2010

There are good alternatives to traditional milk containers for those who are worried about their environmental impact

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    Some vegans shun dairy products for environmental reasons, as noted here. Raising milk cows is energy-intensive, and the animals emit greenhouse gases. However, most of us want milk for our cereal and coffee even if we are trying to minimize our environmental impact in other ways. There are still ways to cut back the carbon footprint of our milk even if we can't give it up.

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    Disposable Containers

    90px-Mælkekartoner MilkContainers.JPG 

    The most common milk container is also the least Eco-friendly. Even toy milk containers look like waxed paper cartons because the shape is a universal symbol for milk.

    These cartons are difficult to recycle for the few recycling programs that accept the containers. The production process is also energy-intensive. They are made of a complex layering of paper, plastic and metal.

    Plastic milk jugs are better. They are easier to recycle, but the process also consumes energy and results in a net loss of materials. After the plastic is crushed and shipped across the country or around the world, it is reformed into other products. A firm named Green Toys makes children's toys out of recycled milk jugs.

    The company estimates that recycling a pound of plastic milk jugs saves enough energy to power a laptop computer for a month.

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    Reusable Plastic Containers

    Still, you can save even more energy by reusing plastic milk containers. Here are some ways to reuse milk jugs around the home.

    If you buy a milk jug each week, you might quickly run out of these ideas. Instead, look for refillable milk containers. They have long been available in some natural grocers, especially in Wisconsin, Vermont and other major dairy-producing states.

    Dairies told E Magazine in 1995 they can charge four cents less for each gallon of refillable milk. They typically reuse the containers 20 to 30 times before disposal, they said.

    Sunflower Markets and some Whole Foods stores offer the refillable containers, but the idea has not spread to mainstream supermarkets. Consider asking your supermarket to start selling the containers.

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    Minimizing Packaging

    Canadian milk drinkers are ahead of most of the world in their Eco-friendly milk packaging. Many parts of the country have long purchased the milk in plastic bags, which are typically cut at one corner and placed in a reusable pitcher.

    The bags use 75 percent less plastic than thick plastic jugs, and they are also recyclable.

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    Reusable Glass Containers

    Another Eco-friendly way to buy milk is also an old-fashioned way. Many areas have returned to the traditional home delivery of glass milk bottles. These bottles can be sterilized and reused many more times than even the refillable plastic bottles. The glass does not degrade or melt.