Sunday, July 06, 2008

Don't cry over spilled milk, even if it's green

Milk is one of those products at the heart of American consumption. Most people purchase milk on a regular basis. We can gauge rising food costs by the price of a gallon of milk from one week to the next. There are many arguments about how milk can be advertised: is it hormone-free? What counts as a hormone? Is organic better than local or local better than organic? Who’s left drinking whole milk in the midst of an obesity panic? Should people drink so much milk?

The New York Times came out with a great milk story recently which dovetails nicely with my recent re-consideration of big box superstores like Wal-Mart. Costco, Wal-Mart, and Sam’s Clubs are all switching to a re-designed milk carton that’s square and flat on top. The new jugs are not only cheaper to produce, but they cut energy, transportation, and storage costs. The more familiar shaped gallon container is a pain to store and stack. They require plastic crates for shipping, which add weight and return costs to trucking operations. The new jugs fit together like puzzle pieces and can be packed together with a single layer of cardboard in between and shrink -wrapped, four layers high. There’s also less water use (no crates to wash) and the store can fit three times as many gallons of milk in store coolers than it did before. One other surprising result:

The whole operation is so much more efficient that milk coming out of a cow in the morning winds up at a Sam’s Club store by that afternoon, compared with several hours later or the next morning by the old method. “That’s our idea of fresh milk,” Greg Soehnlen, a vice president at Creative Edge, said.
The new plastic jug seems to be recyclable in most areas, but Costco has shifted towards using plastic shrink-wrap to encourage consumers to buy two gallons at a time. The plastic wrap, which is more and more ubiquitous at these stores (as a means of encouraging buying in bulk), definitely ends up in the landfill.

For consumers, the store-driven innovation is a mixed bag (or jug?). In Sam’s Club, the new carton sells for less than a “traditional” plastic gallon, but the company also has in-store demonstrations on how to pour from the new container because it’s easy to spill. The sales clerk recommends a “tilt” rather than a “lift” when filling a glass. Even with training and a reduced price, some people were still complaining about how easy it is to spill the milk, a problem that might, in another scenario, be considered a design-flaw. In this case, because these companies dominate the grocery market and have a commitment to lowering production costs and energy use, their design needs trump those of the consumer. It will be interesting to see how and when consumers adapt. I don’t see a mass rejection, a Costco Milk Revolt a la the Boston Tea Party, because the change translates into some savings at the checkout counter.

I’m going to get a few containers and see how they work, but for now, I’m sticking to a really old-fashioned approach: for the summer, we rely on a local dairy that delivers milk in glass bottles. We’ll have to wait until September to see how long it takes us to learn not to spill.


Bill Gerba said...

Funny that you mentioned going old-fashioned... I looked into a similar service that delivered milk to the doorstep each morning, and discovered that it's dramatically less energy-efficient to do so.

The fuel needed to deliver door-to-door is something like 6x what it takes to deliver those same gallons of milk to your grocery store, even after counting the fuel that you'd use to get to and from the store yourself (and assuming that once you're there, you'd buy more than just a jug of milk).

Of course, you have to balance doing the "right" thing for the Earth with doing the "right" thing for your family, and even you yourself (I'm firmly of the belief that it's ok to be selfish every now and then).

Annie said...

Personally, it comes down to "as long as it's local" -- whether we get it delivered or I pick it up at my farm coop.

The energy question depends on a few factors: for example, where the delivery service is getting its milk. Here in the Northeast, there are a lot of local dairy farms that also deliver other food products. The miles traveled are not particularly far (compared to, say delivering to a city in a densely populated zone with no farms within a 40 mile radius). The UC Davis research that demonstrated the energy costs of local also concluded that there were other "costs" that are not included in a strict energy use analysis (see Gail Feenstra's work:
For example, the long term sustainability of industrial farms (and the energy use in terms of monoculture farming) is a cost that's offset by buying locally.

Calculating a carbon footprint is going to be a hotly contested issue as energy availability changes, one that marketers will need to sort out in ways that make sense to consumers without totally diluting the concept.

I agree with the idea of "selfishness" if it's health over environment. I am hoping that more research continues to demonstrate that the two goals are tied together -- but not every product works out that way.