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Milk in Bags, Explained

Why does dairy-loving America still shun the “milk bladder” when it’s commonplace in so many other countries?

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Selection of milk and dairy products on shelves in a supermarket. Niloo / Shutterstock
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The average American in the United States drank about 17 gallons of milk last year, and whether whole, skim, 2 percent, or even chocolate, chances are that milk came in a plastic jug or a paper carton. But hop over the border to Canada and the story is very different. In certain regions, mainly in the country’s eastern half, consumers favor milk sold in floppy, plastic pouches.

The concept might seem odd to those who didn’t grow up drinking bagged milk, but to roughly half of Canadian milk consumers, the milk bladder is a way of life. It’s estimated that 75 to 85 percent of Ontario residents purchase their milk in a pouch, but Canadians aren’t the only dairy drinkers repping sack milk. People in India, China, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Hungary, South Africa, and even in some parts of the U.S. drink milk in bags, which some argue is a more economical and environmentally friendly packaging style.

So why did some countries adopt the milk pouch, while others did not? And how do those pouches work, anyway? Here, now, are the answers to all your burning questions about milk in bags.

When did milk in bags become a thing?

In the early half of the 20th century when refrigeration became mainstream, towns in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere were supplied by milkmen who delivered glass bottles of fresh milk to customers’ doorsteps. The bottles were functional and reusable, but also heavy, breakable, and costly to clean. Rudimentary versions of lightweight milk cartons began to emerge around 1915 and became more commonplace with the emergence of Swedish company Tetra Pak in the mid-1960s. Lightweight plastic milk jugs also entered the market in the mid-’60s, promising to increase milk’s shelf life.

However, the plastic innovations didn’t stop there. Around 1967, American chemical company DuPont introduced the thin, polyethylene milk bag known as a pillow pouch to the Canadian market as an alternative to glass bottles. The company, in collaboration with Guaranteed Pure Milk Co., tested pouches in Montreal and Vancouver. Canada’s rush to transition from the Imperial measurement system to the metric system in the 1970s forced packaging companies to scramble to change their container sizes from pounds to liters. Plastic milk bladders adapted more easily to the new metric standards and thus gained an edge in some parts of the Canadian market.

A four-liter bag of milk at a grocery store. fw_gadget / Flickr

How do you drink milk out of a bag?

Bagged milk is sold in loose pouches ranging from half a liter to 1.33 liters, depending on the country. In Canada’s case, the milk comes in a larger package stuffed with three bladders adding up to four liters. Because the bags aren’t rigid like a bottle, some bagged milk fans argue that they’re easier to store in the refrigerator. The trade-off, of course, is that they’re unwieldy and can’t be refilled after opening. To use the plastic bladder, consumers generally purchase a special reusable pitcher and place the unopened bag inside, with a corner facing the pour spout.

The method of opening the bag varies depending on the country, the type of jug being used, and the brand of milk. The size of the opening is crucial for pouring and preventing spills. The most common way is simply to use scissors, a knife, or in some cases teeth to snip off a triangle at the corner of the bag. However, some pitchers like the Jugit and Kankomat contain a built-in knife designed to cut open milk bags with precision. Many families invest in a plastic and stainless steel blade tool known as a Snippit, that clips onto the side of the milk jug. The Snippit was invented in 1978 as a safe way for kids to open milk pouches, though people also use it to open frozen food packages, chips, and even mail.

Closing the pouch also requires its own sort of finesse and is perhaps the main reason why some people are resistant to buying bagged milk. Because the package doesn’t come with a lid, people find creative ways to seal their milk bags: folding down the plastic loosely in the container or sometimes pinning the opening shut with a clip.

Does the bagged milk go bad more quickly?

The fact that the bag is left mostly unsealed and exposed to air in the refrigerator leads some to extrapolate that the milk will start to taste funny or spoil more quickly. However, milk bag devotees claim that when the bags are left open, families drink the milk more quickly. They also argue that less milk is wasted because the three liters of milk are broken up into smaller, closed packages.

Is a milk pouch more environmentally friendly?

Milk bags are maybe greener. Bagged milk evangelists argue that pouches use 75 percent less plastic than the average plastic milk jug and are lighter, requiring less energy to ship (the same argument taken with beer in cans versus bottles and paper versus plastic bags). Consequently, the bags more affordable than their bottled competitors. The thin, flexible packaging also means that bagged milk takes up less space in the garbage — that is, when the packaging isn’t recycled. For this reason, supermarket chains in the UK such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have intermittently tried introducing bagged milk to customers over the last two decades. However, the pouched milk campaigns never seem to last.

Unfortunately, milk bags aren’t as easy to recycle as plastic milk jugs and result in a lot of plastic waste — to the point that India’s high rate of plastic pollution stems in part from plastic milk bags. A 2018 study of plastic refuse in Delhi by an environmental NGO called Chintan found that branded milk bags from Mother Dairy and Amul accounted for 57 percent of all of the single-layer plastic garbage analyzed. As a result, the government has put increasing pressure on milk companies to devise a method for recycling the plastic waste. Of course, the increased interest in recycling comes as countries such as the U.S. are finding it altogether more difficult to deal with all of their recyclables now that China has banned the import of foreign trash. That’s bad news for plastic jugs, too.

Where in the U.S. can I find milk in a bag?

Midwest convenience store chain Kwik Trip is known for its individual half-gallon milk pouches sold at hundreds of locations across Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as Iowa where it’s called Kwik Star. Kyle Schild, a production manager for Kwik Trip, says that while some people view it as a novelty, there’s also a loyal base of bagged milk drinkers who have been buying it that way since the packaging was first introduced more than 30 years ago.

“The bagged milk has a following,” Schild says, noting that he comes from a pouch milk family. “If you’re a bagged milk drinker, you don’t drink it out of any other container.” Kwik Trip pasteurizes and packages its milk from member dairies using its own equipment. Schild says that bagged milk sales account for roughly 14.5 percent of the company’s total milk sales, and the company also sells other beverages in the bag format, including orange juice. “It’s definitely a Kwik Trip staple,” he says.

Some millennials growing up in the U.S. may have also encountered water balloon-shaped squares filled with juice or milk in their school lunch room. Produced by DuPont, the so-called “mini-sip pouch” had a moment in the 1990s. Between 1989 and 1992, demand for the pouch milk grew from 30,000 mini-sip pouches per day to 3 million, with schools in 24 states using them by 1993. Kids were provided with instructional videos to train them how to properly pierce the mini sip pouches with a straw or pour the milk into their breakfast cereal.

But the trend towards mini-sip pouches didn’t last. Duane Naluai, head of consumer products at Darigold in Washington, notes that his company still uses the mini-sip pouch on a limited basis to supply milk at Spokane Public Schools. Dairies supplying Spokane adopted the packaging system as a test nearly 20 years ago, but decided not to expand the format to other parts of the state. “That particular test and that technology did not succeed in the marketplace,” Naluai says. American consumers prefer aseptic pouches like Capri-Suns or shelf-stable Tetra Pak cartons like the ones sold by Organic Valley and Horizon, he says.

Still, as recently as 2015 a district in Omaha, Nebraska took up the pouches. Schools reported that each pouch costs about 13 cents less than a carton and resulted in a roughly 80 percent decrease in lunch waste. Some school administrators also observed that kids drank more of the milk because they could see into the bag. The pouches, packaged by the now-defunct Prairieland Dairy, were also available on college campuses and at local grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Hy-Vee.

What’s the future of the plastic pouch in the U.S.?

Although mini-sip pouches have fallen out of favor in school districts, more and more cafeterias are starting to request bag-in-box bulk pouches as a way to reduce their environmental footprint. “It’s really been in the last 15 to 16 months that the interest has really bubbled to the surface” for bag-in-box milk at grade schools, says Scott Dissinger, a representative with the dairy research firm Dairy Management Inc. Each bag-in-box is loaded into a refrigerated dispenser known as a steel cow. Students then pour their own milk into a reusable cup. The format works better for schools whose students gather in a traditional cafeteria rather than eating in their classrooms.

Schools in Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Virginia have taken up the steel cow. Students, Dissinger says, like the self-service format and being able to customize their milk — maybe by mixing different ratios of chocolate with plain. Some students also believe the milk comes out colder than in the traditional carton. It doesn’t hurt that the bulk system reduces food and packaging waste. All those pieces are helping drive a resurgence in the 5-gallon bulk milk pouch, which has been a staple in college cafeterias, mess halls, and on cruise ships for at least 30 years. As the dairy industry adjusts to accommodate demand for the bag-in-box milk, children around the U.S. could start seeing fewer cartons and more steel cows.

Correction: This story misstated that Kwik Trip has locations in Ohio. It has locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.