New 'Milk in a Bag' Solution Is Redundant if You Ask a Canadian

©. Danilo Saito

A new design from students at the University of São Paulo has the noble goal of streamlining the recycling process, but in the project's original quest to optimize water use and avoid waste, it misses the point.

In response to the drought crisis in Brazil, a group of students at the University of São Paulo were given the task to design “a solution that optimizes the use of water and avoids its waste.” The students, led by 23-year-old Danilo Saito, came up with the “Re-Pack Carton.”

This carton is considered innovative because, as Fast Company describes it in a rave review, the “milk carton is half-recycled before you even open it.” The packaging is made up of two components – a cardboard outer package, which provides rigid support, and bags made of corn-derived bio-plastic that hold the milk. These components are completely separate, which means that resources, energy, and time don’t have to be wasted separating them during the recycling process.

The design, however, seems redundant when you consider that we Canadians have been drinking milk like this for decades, except that our method is even greener. Our plastic or ceramic milk pitchers are permanent; most families have one that lasts for many years, which means we don’t need a new cardboard box for every four bags of milk, as Saito’s design requires. Recyclable or not, there are still precious resources going into creating that cardboard pitcher.

The Canadian plastic milk bags, made of low-density polyethylene, are thinner than the flexible cornstarch bio-plastic in Saito’s design and use 75% less plastic than conventional rigid packaging. Saito’s flexible bags boast a 70% reduction, which is also good, but they're designed to be discarded. Canadian milk bags can be reused in a variety of ways.

Nor is the Canadian milk-in-a-bag system nearly as horrible or error-likely as FastCo makes it out to be. Some of the pitchers have lids, which means they are resealable and keep milk fresher. With a bit of practice, “manhandling Canada’s monstrous one-gallon multipacks into your cart” is not a big deal.

What I dislike about the Re-Pack Carton is the basic assumption that recycling can solve our garbage woes. Saito’s website clearly states: “People throw away tons of trash every day, and the best way to avoid all this waste is recycling.”

No, it isn’t! Recycling is merely a Band-Aid solution, a feel-good action that makes people feel better about the horrible amounts of trash they generate on a daily basis. The best way to avoid all this waste is not to create all this waste in the first place.

A better idea would be to design a sterilization process that’s cheap, efficient, and easy enough to encourage the use of reusable milk jugs, rather than relying on disposables of any kind. That's something I would buy into for sure.