Some things are so iconic, we don’t even stop to consider their impact on the environment. For example, take the ubiquitous milk cartons at K-12 schools. The amount of resulting wasted resources and garbage from this common cafeteria fare is astounding. A possible solution comes from an unlikely champion — the World Wide Fund for Nature Inc. (WWF), and it’s delivered in the form of bulk milk.

The WWF, previously known globally as the World Wildlife Fund, has spent the past sixty years preserving the wilderness and working to reduce the human impact on the environment. In collaboration with Triangle Associates, the WWF compiled a report on the impacts of single-use milk containers, specifically those used throughout United States school systems.

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Much of the information in the report stems from another program launched by the WWF in 2019. The Food Waste Warrior (FWW) program set out to aid schools in reducing food waste and improving students’ understanding of the entire food system. Forty-six schools in eight states performed waste audits, which helped identify sources of waste in the cafeteria. Milk rose to the top of the list as one of the most commonly wasted with an estimated 45 million gallons of milk being tossed each year. 

Considering the food supply chain, it’s easy to see how painful this waste is to every link from the cow to the landfill. First, we have the resources involved in raising the cattle. Then we have the resources used during production, packaging, transport, storage and service. In the end, the WWF estimates “Wasted milk each school year emits the equivalent of over 77,000 gas-powered vehicles and uses nearly 10,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of water — which is only made worse when milk waste is then sent to landfills or incinerators, where it produces additional methane GHG emissions.”

A cafeteria-like lunch with trays

Reducing resource waste is better for the environment, but post-consumer waste is an issue, too, with millions of half-filled cartons hitting the garbage cans. In turn, it results in more plastic garbage bags, transport emissions and piles at the dump.

WWF proposes a solution through bulk milk dispensers (BMDs) to replace individual milk containers. BMDs are just what they sound like, a dispenser for milk, where students fill a real cup to drink out of. These reusable, refillable containers can hold a three- to five-gallon bag of cooled liquid milk. Equipped with several spigots, students and staff can serve themselves a proportional amount of milk. 

The benefits are many. For starters, bulk milk eliminates the copious post-consumer waste issue. Plus, it lowers overall costs for school systems by reducing refrigeration storage and waste removal. Both the garbage bill and the utility bill could see a decrease. Plus, self-serve is an empowering way to give students the tools to reduce their own individual waste through portion control. Rather than being served a set quantity of milk in a carton, each student can pour only the amount they plan to drink.

Glass milk cartons on the sidewalk

The bulk milk system doesn’t come without some challenges, however. Even though the costs will be counterbalanced with savings in other areas, the initial setup of a BMD is a high-ticket item for already-trimmed budgets. Plus, many schools would need to purchase a high-capacity dishwasher to keep up with the number of reusable cups used during food service.

The WWF report claims, “In many cases, schools are able to offset those costs within around 2 years with the savings that BMDs yield on trash disposal and recycling fees, as well as milk purchasing and energy costs.” For schools considering the switch, WWF and Triangle Associates have developed a Cost Savings Estimate Calculator that can be used to estimate initial costs, savings and a break-even point for the investment. 

The report is a culmination of data sourced from 13 case studies on BMDs across the nation. There were some interesting stand-out facts from the trials. For example, the report mentions a carton waste-reduction situation, explaining, “An Oregon middle school in Marion County saw their annual milk carton waste nearly drop in half from 32,000 to 17,000 cartons over the course of a school year, avoiding two six-yard dumpsters of waste from being generated.”

A cow looking into the camera

There was also a notable milk waste reduction. “This same middle school saw their annual average of milk waste decrease by 83% from 250 gallons to 43 gallons of liquid milk over the course of a single school year.”

Schools in the case studies reported a reduction in overall costs as well. In one example, “New London-Spicer High School in Minnesota saw their energy usage for milk cooling drop by 50% after installing BMDs.”

Similarly, “Washington Middle School reported annual savings of $120 a year in refrigeration costs from replacing the school’s milk carton cooler with a BMD. This same report observes additional savings in fees associated with maintenance, repair and replacement of milk carton coolers.”

School milk stands as an example of a habitual grab we fail to consider the environmental impact. This report reminds us there is no action too small when taking accountability for the health of the planet. 

+ World Wildlife Fund (WWF)

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