'A sound nutritional package': why milk (thanks to these modern machines) still has a place in our greener world

A return to using glass is making full-fat more eco-friendly in the face of dairy-free surge, says Xanthe Clay 
In the face of dairy-free alternatives, producers of real milk are fighting back

How do you like your milk in the morning? Splashed in tea, sloshed over cereal, whizzed into a smoothie or frothed on to a coffee, the chances are it came out of a plastic supermarket bottle. It’s become a standardised, faceless commodity product, a far cry from the traditional glass bottle delivered by a cheery milkman.

Not only that, in a bid to tempt us in store, some supermarkets have been selling it at cut-throat prices which leave farmers financially desperate. Concerns have been raised over cows treated as “milk machines” on mega dairies, kept indoors and milked intensively before slaughter at the age of five or six years once their yields drop.

The quality has been questioned too. As the website for the dairy arm of the Government-sponsored Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board states: “Some contracts [between farmer and supplier] may simply reward the production of ‘white water’ or raw milk without defined constituent characteristics” – characteristics which include protein levels and milk hygiene.

Add to that worries about the environmental impact of intensive meat and dairy farming, with the UN identifying it as playing a major role in climate change, although British farmers point out that here in the UK government figures show it is responsible for just 10 per cent of our total carbon emissions.

More radically, in last week’s documentary on Channel 4, Apocalypse Cow, campaigning journalist George Monbiot advocated ditching meat and dairy production altogether in favour of protein produced by bacteria fed on hydrogen.

No wonder that recently there’s been a much-trumpeted surge in sales of “mylk” or “m*lk” or “milk alternative” made from oats, soy, rice or almonds and even peas, the latest in the roll call of foods to be processed into white liquid, by grinding and soaking, after which enzymes may be added, along with emulsifiers and oils, before it is pumped into a long-life container ready to slosh on our cornflakes.

According to market experts Kantar, sales of “free from milks” over the last year are up 11 per cent with oat “milk” alone up nearly 90 per cent.

But reports of the end of milk as we know it are greatly exaggerated. The amount of cow’s milk we are buying is down less than half a per cent; 99 per cent of households still have it in the fridge. Sales of cow’s milk last year topped five billion litres, with dairy-free alternatives selling only around six per cent of that.

Now it seems milk is fighting back. A study from Harvard University suggested that children who are given full-fat milk are 40 per cent less likely to be obese – a reminder that milk is good stuff for kids, a sound nutritional package, for the majority of us in the West who can tolerate it.

A recent study suggested that children who are given full-fat milk are 40 per cent less likely to be obese Credit: Zing Images

Cow’s milk has more protein than plant-based alternatives – only soy and pea versions come close. It is high in iodine, vitamin B12, riboflavin and, of course, calcium. Sure, the vegan “mylks” are quick to trumpet that they have these goodies too, but their high levels are from added fortification, which may not be as beneficial as naturally-occurring nutrients – just as most dietitians agree that it’s better to get your vitamins from fresh food than from tablets.

The way we are buying it is changing though. For the first time in 40 years, sales from milkmen are rising, according to the largest player in the field Milk & More, owned by the German-based Müller.

They have signed up 75,000 customers in the last year, making a total of half a million. Nor are they the only doorstep deliverers: small players are seeing an upswing too. If you are interested, you can track down a local milkman via findmeamilkman.net, many of whom are local farms so you will be able to check out the quality of their milk too.

One of the major reasons we are turning back to the milkman is to ditch plastic and go back to glass bottles. While Milk & More can provide plastic bottles, they say the vast majority of customers opt for glass.

But before we get too misty eyed about a good old “pinta”, it’s worth remembering that high-density polythene milk bottles are one of the most successfully recycled plastics, mostly processed here in the UK and with about 30 per cent of each bottle being made from recycled plastic (they can’t currently be made with 100 per cent recycled plastic). It is much easier to recycle than “composite” materials like, say, the plastic/aluminium/paper sandwich that a Tetra Pak is comprised of.

Nonetheless, reusing is better than recycling, so washing out a glass bottle and refilling it makes good sense. Sure, a glass bottle is more costly to produce, so it needs to be used at least 20 times before it “breaks even” environmentally compared to plastic, and anti-waste charity Wrap reckons that it may be effectively reused only 18 times (allowing for bottles that are broken or don’t return to the milkman for other reasons, perhaps because they are being repurposed as trendy flower vases).

That said, suppliers insist that they could be refilled up to 50 times before becoming too scuffed to reuse, at which point they can be recycled – and unlike plastic, glass doesn’t lose quality every time it is recycled.

If, like me, a milk delivery doesn’t fit in with your life, you may welcome a new initiative that is finding its way on to the high street. Milk refilling stations have started appearing in farm shops as well as on the high street. From deep in the South West, where Rodda’s, of clotted cream fame, are selling Cornish milk from 30 locations, to Siop Ellis Spar in Llangefni on Anglesey to Forest Farm Dairy, Aberdeenshire.

My local is Better Food Company in Bristol, which installed its machine six months ago. You buy a 750ml glass bottle and lid for £1, and then pop it in the dispenser, close the glass door, choose semi skimmed or full fat, and wait seven seconds or so while it fills it with organic milk from Bruton Dairy in Somerset, for £1 a time.

Better Food Company's refilling machine Credit: Better Food Company

More than the supermarkets, sure, but I know where the milk has come from, plus it is unhomogenised, which (Waitrose Duchy Originals aside) is not generally sold by the multiples, except for the rich Gold Top milk. It’s cheaper than most delivery services too, plus, washing the bottles at home and bringing it back to the shop for refills makes more sense to me than transporting a heavy glass back to the dairy for washing, sterilising and refilling.

So far, so good. But to make sense, we all need to have a “refill station” close to home. At the supermarket would be handy for most of us, so why haven’t they adopted the idea? Sainsbury’s says it is considering the idea, but when I spoke to other supermarkets about the possibility of a milk-vending machine, they dismissed it, claiming the issue was one of hygiene – people couldn’t be trusted to clean their bottles properly between refills.

Really? I reckon we are competent to wash a bottle and anyway, that’s our problem not theirs. After all, if you follow this logic, we can’t be trusted to keep our fish in the fridge or wash our hands after dealing with raw chicken, so frankly shouldn’t be allowed these ingredients at all.

I asked Gene Joyner of Better Food whether the scheme was working for them. “Customers love it,” he told me. “They want to do something that contributes to the environment. We’ve had our two machines for six months and we’ll probably save 10 to 15 thousand plastic bottles over a year.” Sure, there have been teething problems. The machines, specially made for the shops, have needed calibrating.

Nor does it particularly make financial sense, he admits. “It takes up a lot of space, and plastic bottles probably give us a better margin. But that’s not really what we are about.” Shelf life is also shorter than milk sealed in a bottle at the dairy, around four to six days instead of eight to 12. “But it’s the same with our bread, and customers understand that an artisan- made loaf without preservatives may not last as long as mass-produced bread,” points out Joyner.

Meanwhile I will continue nestling the milk bottles in a wine-bottle carrier and walking up the road for a refill. Children adore watching milk frothing and squirting into the bottle, and if I’m honest, so do I. When the main door is opened for staff to check milk levels, it reveals not a grim plastic vat, but a real, proper milk churn, which illogically enough, is very satisfying. Environmentally, this is one “milk machine” that makes total sense.