Monday, February 4, 2008

Packaging Memo: Innovative UK Grocer Waitrose to Start Selling Fresh Milk Packaged in Bags That Require 75% Less Plastic to Produce Than Plastic Jugs

British Supermarket chain Waitrose plans to soon begin selling fresh milk in bags in many of its stores in the United Kingdom (UK).

Milk, in bags, you ask? Yes indeed. The plastic sacks, which use 75% less plastic than plastic milk bottles or jugs which Waitrose will continue to sell, were tested by the innovative British grocer in a number of its stores last year. Waitrose tells us the test went well, and that it soon will start offering the plastic milk bags, called Eco Paks, in about 50 of its stores in the nation.
The Eco Pak milk-in-a-bag was created by Calon Wen, a Welsh dairy and fresh fruit and vegetable cooperative owned by about 20 farm families. The Calon Wen branded sacks of fresh milk will also have a bold "Ethical Trade" label on them, along with the words, "75% less packaging" to indicate that it takes 75% less plastic to produce one Eco Pak milk bag than it does to make a plastic milk jug that can hold the equivelent amount of fresh milk. Source-reduction is green.

Waitrose will continue to offer fresh milk in traditional plastic containers as well as tetra-type packaging. The retailer says it hopes to create an eco-friendly choice by offering the organic milk in the Eco-Paks. Although the traditional plastic milk bottles and jugs in the UK--and most elsewhere in the west--are 100% recyclable, they aren't recycled by consumers at very high rates. In fact, according to studies in the UK, of the 9 billion plastic bottles sold in the country annually, only about 7% of that total is recycled.

The benefit of the Eco Pak milk bags is that they use 75% less plastic in their creation than the traditional milk bottles do. As such, even with low plastic container recycling rates, they require far less petroleum and energy to produce, and thus are much greener overall than regular plastic milk jugs. Such source-reduction is increasingly becoming the key to creating more sustainable packaging. Waitrose also told us they're going to sell a reusable milk jug that consumers can pour the bagged milk into once they get it home.

Calon Wen Cooperative says other major UK food retailers are interested in selling the Eco Pak bagged milk as well. Richard Tomlinson, chairman of Calon Wen, says the dairy cooperative is the first milk producer and marketer in the country to recieve the UK Soil Association's Ethical Trade Symbol, which will soon begin showing up on the bags of organic milk in Waitrose stores throughout Britain.

We suggest Calon Wen try to license this technology to dairy cooperatives or processors in the United States. Retailers like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods Market and others are currently looking for packaging innovations that focus on source reduction, especially when it comes to plastics. In fact, Wal-Mart buyers have just started using a packaging scorecard with suppliers. One of the key criteria of the packaging scorecard is the environmental sustainability of a supplier's product packaging, including the amount of energy inputs used in packaging production. Since the Eco Pak bag requires 75% less plastic per package to produce vs. plastic milk jugs, the source-reduction should be right up Wal-Mart's sustainability alley.

Since Wal-Mart sells its own private-label fresh milk in the U.S., and has a major packaging source-reduction program in process, it would be logical--and smart--for the mega-retailer to offer fresh milk for sale in the Eco Paks as well as in traditional cartons and plastic jugs in its U.S. stores. In fact, we expect Wal-Mart's Asda chain in Britain to follow Waitrose's lead and begin selling milk in the Eco Pak bags soon.

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