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Ask Jill: Why Does Milk Come in Cartons?


It's time to head back to school! In honor of the return to classes, cafeterias, and composition notebooks, here's a schoolish Q&A with Ingredient editor Jill Colella.

Ask Jill

Why is milk in cartons?—Lacey, age 10

In short: safety. Some milk comes in plastic bottles, but most school cafeterias have small cartons made of cardboard.

Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, people drank milk, but there was a little—big, actually—problem. Refrigerators did not exist yet. This meant that milk needed to be consumed quickly because it really couldn’t be stored. Farmers or milk men would deliver glass bottles daily to their customers and collect empty glass bottles to wash and reuse. But, customers didn’t always return the expensive bottles. Or the bottles were broken or chipped. Believe it or not, city garbage dumps would collect glass milk bottles that people threw away and return them to dairies. Imagine trying to get those bottles clean enough to put milk in! Glass bottles were sometimes unsanitary and had bacteria that could make milk drinkers sick. The cardboard container solved this problem. So, even though the cardboard milk container is meant only for a single use, we can be responsible and recycle it with our plastic, metal, and glass containers.

But, if you'd like to use glass bottles at home, some dairies have returned to using them to distribute dairy products! Look for milk and cream in bottles at your local co-op grocery store, and make sure to rinse and return per the dairy's instructions.

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