Parmalat Gives Canadians More Plastic With Their Milk

©. Parmalat Canada -- Marco De Palma, General Manager at Parmalat Canada, posing with the new Lactantia PūrFiltre bottles

Remodeled packaging features PET jugs in place of the thin plastic bags that have worked well for decades.

Parmalat Canada, one of the nation's largest milk suppliers, has clearly been living under a rock. In a move that seems bizarrely at odds with the growing public resistance to excessive plastic packaging, the company has just announced new plastic bottles for its milk that will prolong shelf life. By switching out the old plastic milk bags for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) jugs, Parmalat, which owns the popular brand Lactantia, says milk will keep for 60 days, which is 10-15 days longer than it keeps now.

I'm a big fan of minimizing food waste, but I think this is a major step in the wrong direction. Milk bags may be finicky -- they are certainly a source of amusement to people in other countries who struggle to grasp the idea of buying milk in a thin plastic bag -- but for Canadians who are accustomed to them, they're no problem at all. Pop the 1.3-litre bag into a holder, snip off the corner, and you're set.

From an environmental perspective, milk bags use 75 percent less material than jugs and can be reused almost infinitely as sandwich bags and more. (See my list of clever uses for milk bags.)

Some argue that bags reduce food waste because, when milk goes bad, it's only a single bag that spoils, as opposed to a gallon-sized jug. (Canadian milk comes in a 4-litre bag that's divided into three separate 1.3L bags.) The bags are conducive to freezing, which means that I often buy milk on clearance when it's about to expire and toss it in the freezer if my family can't drink it fast enough. The bag defrosts rapidly when submerged in a bowl of water.

Canada bagged milk

fw_gadget/CC BY 2.0

We've been arguing in favour of milk bags for a long time on TreeHugger. Eight years ago, Lloyd wrote:

"Because the packaging is so minimal and light, some say it is more energy efficient than recycled glass bottles. In the UK, the switch to bagged milk is expected to keep 100,000 tons of plastic out of the landfills."

Parmalat's motivation is sales, of course. Fewer people are drinking white milk, seeking non-dairy alternatives and lactose-free milk. The new bottle is an attempt to offer a fresh new product and a design that looks "unlike other milk bottles on the dairy shelf," although it's hard to imagine that a novel bottle shape could have a permanent effect on people's milk-drinking habits. The prolonged shelf life will make faraway markets easier to access, opening the door to "new flavours of milk." (No one suggested what those flavours might be, but as someone who won't touch chocolate milk with a ten-foot pole, I can't imagine they'd be very appealing.)

If Parmalat was dead-set on leaving milk bags behind, I do wish it had taken a more progressive approach and adopted reusable, refillable milk containers, which are starting to catch on in the UK and could be an interesting and viable business model in urban centres. Even Tetra-Paks, despite not being recyclable, would be better than solid plastic jugs in terms of total amount of material required.

Single-use plastics are increasingly viewed as unsustainable, unnecessary, and even unethical. Even when hailed as recyclable, the new milk jug is likely to turn many people off, because conscientious consumers are realizing that 'recyclable' means nothing. When the time comes eventually for companies to be held responsible for the full life cycle of their packaging, this new bottle could be something that Parmalat deeply regrets.