Simple in design, ubiquitous, clean, and highly desirable to Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), the dairy milk jug has a compelling circular packaging story to tell. Yet, according to the EPA, fewer than three out of 10 mono-material high-density polyethylene milk jugs are recycled in the U.S. For dairy producers, it’s a missed opportunity to promote the sustainability of their packaging as well as increase the recycled content in their jugs; for MRFs, it’s a lost chance for revenue, especially given that a bale of recycled HDPE is one of the most valuable plastic packaging materials they handle.
One of the biggest challenges around collecting and recycling 0.5- and 1-gal HDPE milk jugs is consumer participation. Either they don’t know the packaging is recyclable or they are skeptical it will get recycled and therefore put it with the trash rather than in the curbside bin. Another issue is that, for so long, the dairy industry has been focusing its efforts on responsible production to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions—including recycling natural resources, such as air and water, and reusing manure to eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers—that packaging hasn’t been a point of focus.
That’s according to Roger Zellner, president of packaging consultancy Rogue Zebra, who formerly led global sustainable packaging efforts at Kraft and Mondelēz. Zellner was featured on Amcor’s Big Ideas podcast. In it, he said, “The dairy industry has done a lot of great work [around sustainability]. In California, due to their work, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped around 50%, I believe. And so consequently, it hasn’t been necessary to defend the milk jug or beneficial for the industry to talk about until now.”
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What’s changed? For one thing, consumer interest in products that offer sustainable packaging continues to grow. According to a 2020 McKinsey U.S. consumer sentiment survey, more than 60% of respondents said they’d pay more for a product with sustainable packaging. Although milk jugs haven’t been in the crosshairs the way single-serve plastic packages have been—as Zellner notes, you usually don’t see a person chug a gallon of milk on-the-go and throw the package on the roadside or beach—promoting the recyclability of the milk jug can only benefit dairy producers.
Another driver is new extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation for packaging that mandates that plastic packaging contain a specified percentage of post-consumer recycled content. But where will the PCR come from, if recycling rates remain at their current rates? In 2022, HDPE bottles and containers had a recycling rate of just 19.1%, according to The Association of Plastic Recyclers.
In California, where recently enacted legislation requires a PCR plastic content standard of 15% as of January 1, 2022, increasing to 25% in 2025, and 50% in 2030, the dairy industry has taken notice, and in fall 2021, the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) with help from Zellner and other organizations launched a first-of-its-kind educational campaign, aptly titled Recycle the Jug, directed at dairy consumers. If successful, it could provide a blueprint for a national campaign to inform consumers on the tremendous circularity of this universal package.
Environmental stewardship includes packaging
CMAB was founded in 1969 as a state marketing board funded by California’s dairy farm families. An instrument of the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the organization is focused on building awareness and driving sales for dairy products that carry the Real California Milk Seal, a certification that 100% of dairy ingredients come from sustainably produced California milk. In support of these goals, CMAB uses tools that include advertising, public relations, research, and retail and foodservice promotional programs, both for the California market as well as across the U.S.
According to Jennifer Giambroni, vice president of communications for CMAB, the multi-generational nature of farming lends itself to an attitude of continuous improvement to be able to stay in business and pass the farm on. “California dairy families are leaders in sustainable farming practices,” she says. “California’s dairy farmers began investing in support for ongoing sustainability research and education with the establishment of the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program in the early 1990s and were the first to have an Environmental Stewardship certification program. The state is the first to have a mandate to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions—below 1990 levels by 2030—and dairy farmers are well on their way to reaching that goal. Outside of the farm, the industry is constantly looking at opportunities to improve its sustainability.”
It is this drive toward greater environmental stewardship that led CMAB to investigate the sustainability advantages of fluid milk packaging—a container that has been staple in the U.S. dairy industry since the 1960s and is one of the easiest packages to recycle.
After hearing Zellner speak on sustainable packaging at a national dairy event, Bob Carroll, vice president of business development for CMAB, enlisted the consultant to help the organization understand consumers’ perceptions around the milk jug and develop an educational program to increase the recycling rate for the container.
“High-density polyethylene milk jugs are widely recyclable and highly sought after by recyclers, yet we learned that consumers were largely confused and skeptical about plastics recycling,” Carroll says. “Zellner was a driving force in developing the idea and execution of the project from its inception in 2020. He facilitated building a wide coalition of supporters, including milk processors, recyclers, and government and non-government environmental and packaging groups.”
The project began with a study of consumer perceptions. “Currently, 70% of California consumers say that recyclability is important to them, but a 2021 perceptions study conducted by a dairy industry coalition revealed that nearly half [47%] of California consumers find the milk jug difficult to recycle, and 32% of those consumers said they don’t trust it will actually be recycled,” shares Giambroni. “The study also revealed misconceptions that plastic milk jugs are less recyclable than other packaging formats or will not be recycled. Many consumers reported that the size of their milk jugs also was a barrier to their putting it in the recycling bin.”
In California, at least 64% of households have access to curbside HDPE recycling, according to The Recycling Partnership. In the Amcor webinar, Zellner surmised that one reason consumers in California may not be aware of the fact that milk jugs can be recycled is because of the state’s container deposit system, or the California Redemption Value (CRV), which milk jugs are not included in. “So, some citizens think about recycling at the redemption centers,” he says.
But it isn’t just consumers who need to be made aware of the milk jug’s recyclability; dairy processors are also surprisingly unaware of the value of the material. According to Zellner, the fact that the milk jug is one of the most recyclable packages out there was a “revelation for the dairy industry.” He adds, “When we were working with a local dairy in California, after Bob [Carroll] pulled me into the campaign, they found it hard to believe. We had to bring in two local recyclers that shared with them that yes, milk jugs are highly desirable.”
Reasons for this lack of understanding may be the dairy industry’s fragmented nature, with most brands being local, as well as a lack of packaging expertise in the industry, Zellner shares. Also at play, as mentioned, may be the dairy industry’s focus, until recently, on promoting fluid milk’s agricultural sustainability efforts.
Circularity is a win for all stakeholders
The benefits of promoting, and achieving, greater circularity for the HDPE milk jug touch all stakeholders. For brand owners, Zellner says, “it’s one of those wonderful stories that can drive a positive aura around the overall sustainability of milk.” It’s something that could spur repeat sales—not a small factor for a commodity product that’s competing with a massive array of beverage options.
An increase in the availability of recycled HDPE would also be a boon for dairy processors, which are increasingly being confronted with mandates for recycled content in their packaging. “California dairy processors want to increase recycled content in plastic milk jugs but access to recycled HDPE is limited,” says Giambroni. “By increasing consumer awareness of the recyclability of milk jugs, we hope to boost participation in recycling, and in turn, expand access to recycled HDPE so that we can close the loop on plastic milk packaging.”
HDPE dairy containers are especially conducive to a circular system, as well. Unlike some other plastic packaging types, HDPE jugs are an extremely clean waste stream. When recycled, they can be used again for food-contact applications “across the board,” says Zellner, including new milk containers. And, according to a 2018 study by Dutch garbage and receptacles supplier ESE World, HDPE can be recycled up to seven times without a significant loss of quality.
For MRFs, advantages of an increased flow of HDPE include the relative ease with which it is recycled versus some other packaging materials as well as the high price per bale it fetches from reprocessors and plastics suppliers, which are clamoring for the material. Recycled HDPE is in high demand, not only by food and beverage brands, but for the manufacturing industry as well. Polyethylene is reported to be one of the most commonly used materials in manufacturing today.
And for consumers, it allows them to purchase a product in a package that is lightweight, functional, and shatterproof, while offering a unique sustainability story.
A simple message: ‘Pour it. Cap it. Bin it.’
CMAB’s Recycle the Jug public information campaign launched in October 2021 with a dedicated website, a public relations push, and a consumer influencer campaign designed to increase consumer awareness of the recyclability of the plastic milk jug and participation in #2 plastic recycling among California dairy consumers. “The educational program is part of an industry initiative designed to drive sustainable behavior changes across the state and encourages dairy consumers to take three simple steps to recycle their milk jugs: Pour it. Cap it. Bin it,” says Giambroni.
While the tagline is simple, Zellner says it wasn’t such an easy phrase for the project team to come up with. As he shared in the webinar, “You’d be surprised at the amount of debate we had around that phrase. There are three different factors as to why we had such a debate. One, the caps on or the caps off? It took a lot of inquiry with different organizations around recycling to agree that yes, nationally, we want caps on and for different reasons. The other question was, ‘Don’t we have to rinse the container?’ … Well, milk is such a clean material when you pour it out that you really don’t need to use water to rinse it. The other part we had a lot of debate on is, should we crush it [the milk jug]? As we discussed, some people may be living in smaller places, like apartments, so they’d be crushing the jug. But when we have a big recycling bin, to have to try to crush it [is unnecessary]. So hence the simple message of Pour it. Cap it. Bin it.”
This message is prominently displayed on the campaign website and is joined by other easy-to-digest messages on the value of recycling HDPE. Among the tools and resources available on the site are videos, including one that takes the viewer through the process of recycling the jug—from refrigerator to recycler—and another that includes interviews with experts, partners, and key players explaining the recycling process. A downloadable fact sheet provides “All the stats and facts you need to know about recycling milk jugs.”
According to Giambroni, one of the key partners in the effort to promote milk jug recycling are the dairy processors. “With the exception of farmstead operators, most dairy farmers have little to no control over how their milk is used or packaged,” she explains. “Our processor partnerships are essential for this initiative, and we’ve produced a variety of resources for fluid milk processors to be able to communicate the message—from the Recycle the Jug website to videos and social media content they can share. We also worked with the industry to create a new recycling icon that can be used on gallon and half-gallon HDPE milk jugs as a reminder to consumers to recycle their jugs with their local curbside recycling program.”
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Since the campaign launched, Giambroni shares that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but whether it has had its intended effect of raising HDPE recycling rates is not yet clear. “There are currently no available statistics for HDPE packaging recycling in the state of California,” she explains, “but CMAB is working with partners to identify a benchmark for HDPE packaging collected and recycled, so we can track improvement.”
This will take time, Zellner shared in the webinar. “This isn’t something that takes weeks or months,” he said.
Meanwhile, however, Recycle the Jug has attracted dairy producers from other states who are interested in designing a similar campaign. Before taking the program more broadly though, future adopters of the campaign want to see the results from the California campaign and gain information on lessons learned.
When asked if the same or a similar campaign could be used across the U.S., Zellner replied in the affirmative. “The message is pretty clear: The milk jug is recyclable,” he said. “It’s valuable. Pour it. Cap it. Bin it. It’s one of those packages that, you could probably go anywhere in the U.S., and most homes will have one in their fridge. Let’s face it, plastic recycling rates haven’t been stellar in the last few decades. The milk jug is that opportunity to show people that yes, recycling can work.”
|Read this related article on California dairy Clover Sonoma’s use of 30% rHDPE in its liquid-milk jugs.|