Solid Waste & Recycling

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Got Milk?

Quick, is milk a food or a beverage? An odd question, but the answer determines an important recycling issue.


Quick, is milk a food or a beverage? An odd question, but the answer determines an important recycling issue.

Until recently, milk containers were exempt from recycling legislation in almost every part of Canada. Producers successfully lobbied to identify their product as a staple food and not a “beverage” so its packaging slipped outside beverage-container legislation. Also, any recycling cost was described as a tax on the poor.

But milk producers can’t just float away from new funding programs bottling up their juice and soft drink cousins.

Part of milk’s problem is image. Milkshake drinks (a high-growth category) are sold in single-serve containers with funky designs. But the containers are hard to recycle and are the polar opposite of the nostalgic refillable glass containers the milkman used to deliver door to door.

Partly it’s pressure from activists. In trend-setting British Columbia, recycling advocates want milk on deposit, like other beverages. Last year the Southern Gulf Islands Recycling Coalition (SGIRC) brought forward a petition from 20,000 citizens to get milk under the B.C. Beverage Container Program Regulation. The Dairy Council proposed a voluntary stewardship program, but the government recently rejected this and instructed the Council to negotiate further with stakeholders.

Most B.C. milk is sold in jugs, about 60 per cent of which are recycled. SGIRC’s Ann Johnston says the other 40 per cent become “one of the bulkiest and longest-lasting materials to end up in our landfills.” And milk cartons, she says, have the lowest recovery rate of any beverage container in the province — under 30 per cent.

Partly it’s the growing awareness that the recycling exemption is yet another subsidy to dairy farmers. As a recent Financial Post editorial (Nov. 20, 2004) explained, Canada’s dairy marketing system is a “Byzantine tangle of bureaucrats, stakeholders, and supply limiting price manipulators” who hide behind 300 per cent tariffs. Canadian milk production has been stagnant for three decades and prices for milk and milk-derived products like cheese remain artificially high — a true tax on the poor. (Visit Gotmilked.ca) The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association calculates dairy prices have gone up 38 per cent since 1994 while farm costs have fallen 3.5 per cent.

But new stewardship programs are ending milk’s free ride. Nova Scotia already levies half a penny per unit for milk containers (which are mostly cartons in that province, and some jugs). Saskatchewan levies one and two cents for different milk containers.

In Ontario milk containers are now caught by the blue box funding program managed by Stewardship Ontario. Quebec is introducing a similar plan, so changes are coming there as well.

Ontario milk is mostly sold in film pouches and, to a lesser degree, cartons. There are 4-litre jugs, too, many managed under deposit by the ubiquitous Becker’s convenience stores. (The deposits lure customers back to the store where hopefully they’ll buy more stuff.)

Ontario milk producers must now pay half the net cost of managing their packaging waste in the blue box. Stewardship Ontario calculates the 2005 levies for milk packaging at 0.11 cents (an eleventh of a cent) per unit for the outer plastic bag in which the one-litre pouches are sold, and a similar amount for each of the three pouches inside. This works out to 14.25 cents per kilogram of material. Milk cartons are dinged .49 cents (just under half a cent) per unit, or 7.85 cents per kilogram.

Stewardship Ontario uses a complex formula to calculate these levies that estimates milk’s share of the total $118 million net cost of the blue box (the most recent data) divided by two (because industry pays half). As towns and cities move aggressively to achieve provincially-mandated 60 per cent diversion, more milk packaging will go to the blue box instead of landfill, and total milk packaging levies will increase. A similar pattern may soon be observed in Quebec.

Some say the soaring net cost of the blue box (see cover story, page 8) from all the increased diversion might cause the program to top $180 million soon. This has led at least one pundit to speculate that it’s all a Machiavellian plan to cause everyone to throw their hands up and say, “Enough, put everything on deposit!”

Milk producers would balk today but, as I wrote in an editorial earlier this year (“Milking the System,” Feb/March 2004 edition), Canadian quota systems are losing challenges before international trade tribunals. Faced with a flood of American milk, the dairy producers in future will adopt deposits to maintain their market share, much as the Brewers of Ontario today use that environmental fig leaf to keep out U.S. beer.

The last time I wrote about milk packaging and deposits, I mentioned the potential for refillable milk containers made from unbreakable Lexan resin. This time I offer a totally different picture. Organic dairy farmers in southwestern Iowa and NatureWorks PLA have developed corn-based plastic containers. The co-op dairy’s slogan? “We milk the cows and grow the bottles.”

So maybe in a few years we won’t have to collect milk containers for recycling or refilling at all, because we’ll be composting them instead!


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