Yesterday's milk purchase came with a bit of surprise: the skinny packaging which we featured popping up in Asia three years ago has arrived at our table. Although it is heartening to see the spread of a good idea, it is a mixed blessing: one that strikes at the heart of the questions of what is green and which good green ideas have what it takes to survive. Key to these questions is functionality. In this regard, Ecolean makes a remarkable impression. Do you remember a short period when milk was sold in bags and you could buy a rectangular pitcher-thingy to hold the bag in use? Well, Ecolean is as light as those simple bags, but the structural characteristics make the leaky, dirty pitcher unnecessary. A bubble of air stiffens one side of the jug, and adds value as a handle when pouring. The three-ply bottom construction stabilizes the container so that it stands when full but can be collapsed completely flat when empty.
Ecolean is constructed from PE and PP, with about 40% by weight of chalk (calcium carbonate). According to an Ecolean FAQ, the package is recyclable either for energy or for materials. At only 16g for a one liter package, there is not much to recover, but it is still better than going to a landfill.
Why is the spread of a great packaging idea a mixed blessing?
In the first place, our organic milk has previously been delivered in reusable glass bottles. This raises green question number one. What is more eco-friendly? A glass bottle going round-trip, or a very light single-use eco-package? Unfortunately, the ecolean environmental comparison (pdf) only contrasts other disposable packagings.
Pablo has enlighted TH readers with the calculation that a Tetra-pak has lower GHG emissions than reusable glass bottles; by this logic the ecolean packaging does even one better. Although our green halo -- brightened by the good deed of returning glass bottles each time we need more milk -- may dim a little, the convenience may be the bump that is needed to turn all consumers on to a greener packaging concept.
Second, it is a shame that such a great packaging has taken so long to get to (relatively eco-oriented) Germany, and that it is featured only in the greenest of products, organic milk. Ecolean's CEO, Peter Nielson, reports that China and Russia have booming markets for the packaging made of chalk. It is worth spreading the word on this packaging option, to speed its adoption as widely as possible.