After checking out the overflowing recycling bin at one of our nurseries I couldn’t help but notice the very large pile of plastic milk bottles. I calculated that the nurseries were getting through quarter of a million 2 litre plastic milk bottles every year, so it is clearly costing the nurseries a lot to have all those milk bottles disposed of – but not anymore!

Tops Day Nurseries has just moved from plastic to glass bottles, and all those glass bottles go back to the dairies to be cleaned and re-filled. Broken ones are also returned so they can be heated and re-made into more glass bottles as glass is truly recyclable, unlike plastic which is currently only down-cycled. 

About plastic milk bottles

Milk bottles are generally made from HDPE plastic, and very little recycled HDPE plastic is included with new milk bottles (about 10% although the target by 2015 was 30%) because the recycled material currently has a green hue to it – which consumers don’t like – I guess because the milk would look mouldy! 

Along with the plastic are the labels, adhesive used, ink, seals, closure liners, closures, barrier coatings and layers – how complicated it is! Of course many milk bottles don’t get as far as the waste recycling – probably as few as 30% – and therefore most go to general waste, landfill and have even been exported abroad, or discarded by people ending up on roads, pavements and washing into rivers and the sea.

Once in the water it is gradually battered into little bits where it can be eaten and/or injure birds, fish and mammals or ground small enough to become a microplastic to be eaten by plankton and plankton feeders until it works back up the food chain to apex feeders such as dolphins, whales and humans. The chemical additives in plastics are known to cause hormone/fertility problems in humans and some are even carcinogenic – so its not desirable to eat it. Many whales have beached themselves to die a painful death and are found to have a huge amount of plastic in their stomachs.

The plastic that is reclaimed and can’t be made into more milk bottles can be used to create children’s toys and flower pots and fencing, for example. Another problem with plastic bottles is that research strongly suggests that at certain exposure levels, they give off nasty chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) that imitate human hormones which can confuse our bodies and increase the risk of being sterile and may also cause cancer. And we know that males today have a much lower sperm count than previous generations but there is no actual proof to define what is causing this. I wouldn’t be surprised if eating and drinking from plastic isn’t one of the main culprits?

The worst of these chemicals (BPA) has have been taken out of baby bottles, but according to scientists in the documentary film “A Plastic Ocean”, there is a strong possibility that there are still similar chemicals leaching from the plastic into the food and drink that we give our children, e.g. in milk bottles, but we don’t know because research is incomplete or not even started on some additives in plastic. Do we want our children to take these risks?

There is lots of advice to plastic milk bottle manufacturers and dairies to enable maximum recycling, and these can be found on website but this appeared to me to be focused around recycling and did not mention safety of the plastic/chemicals nor leaching out properties.

A better alternative

A better alternative to plastic bottles is to use glass. Glass is made using a combination of sand, soda ash, and limestone. These materials are not renewable, but they are plentiful and once they are used to make a glass bottle, the bottle can be reused and recycled an infinite number of times, and if it does not re-enter the recycling system it can be melted down and re-manufactured into any number of glass products without a decrease in quality. When a bottle is returned, far less energy is required to sterilize and refill a glass bottle than that needed to make a new dairy packaging. However, glass is heavier and therefore more expensive to transport – particularly if diesel vehicles are used rather than electric vehicles using renewable energy. If reneweable energy electric vehicles are used, which are much cheaper to run, then I think the weight becomes insignificant.

Paper milk cartons can also be used, they are very light, but they need to be made using virgin materials, they often have plastic linings, and large amounts of water, fuel and chemical bleaches are involved in the manufacturing process. Generally the cartons are thrown into general waste landfills after use, and always if they contain a combination of paper and plastic.

By returning glass bottles we are reducing the amount of new bottles that need to be made, allowing them to be reused many times. Then once they are recycled they can be re-manufactured without any decrease in quality. The choice is clear to me, glass milk bottles are the best choice for the natural world.

Many dairies have been using just plastic for some time so a move to glass is not something that can be done overnight, and particularly not if everyone wants to do it immediately like we do! However, some dairies are still supplying milk in glass bottles and if consumer demand increases I think it is feasible that more will do so. The bottles are returned to the dairies, cleaned and re-used – and the milk supplied is generally more expensive than milk supplied in plastic – but it wouldn’t be if the government were to intervene and charge companies using virgin plastic as the natural world damage tax.

Currently the government in the UK pays day nurseries and schools providing care and education for the under 5s to supply one free 189ml serving of milk per day (if they attend for 2 hours or more), and the cost is as invoiced so there is no penalty or advantage for using the more expensive milk delivered from a dairy rather than buying and collecting it from a supermarket, so most day nurseries and schools in the UK have their milk delivered for convenience. They can choose whether it comes in glass, plastic or cartons and the size of the cartons. Some schools elect to have 1/3 pint cartons supplied with plastic straws 🙁 and do not do any washing up at the school – in contrast to schools abroad who open the cartons and wash them out ready for recycling as part of their education in caring for the natural world.

Nurseries can make a big difference

Tops Day Nurseries accommodates approximately 3,000 children per day, around 250,000 2l bottles of milk per year, so one change in one group of nurseries can have an impact on plastic waste.

There were 690,013 births in the UK in 2007, and the birth rate in increasing, so if we assume 700,000 births per year, and children are at nursery aged for 3 years (aged 1, 2 and 3) that is 2,800,000 x 189ml = x 52 weeks x 5 days is about 138,000m litres, and then for 1 year at school another 700,000 (36 weeks x 5 days) is another 24,000m litres. That is a lot of plastic!

If one plastic bottle (2L) weighs 42g ( viewed 16.2.2018) then 160,000m litres is 80,000m3bottles x 42g = 3,360,000,000,000g or 3,360,000 tons of plastic. At £345 per ton that is £1,159,200,000 just in packaging that is mostly a precious resource that is finite, and wasted and damages the natural world after use. (I’ve put my workings in, in case I’ve made a mistake with the maths – do check!)

Glass is truly recyclable, unlike plastic which is currently only down-cycled, usually mixing it with virgin plastic, to ever poorer quality plastic until it is only fit to burn for energy, with the ash having a potential use for road building. The problem with using it for road building is that it gets ground by cars and lorries on it, forms microplastic dust together with the plastic tyres microplastics, washes into the streams and rivers and ends up in the sea. This plastic wash into the sea has only been estimated to my knowledge but it has to be significant, and if a fine could be put in place to reflect the long term and potentially devastating damage that microplastics washing into the natural world cause then perhaps current generations would make the effort to have less of an impact on the world for future generations but with the aim of stopping plastic being used up like this in the first place and being used for more permanent products that are of more essential use to humans.

According to Defra, in 2017, the average farmgate price paid by dairies for milk was around 31.6 ppl and in the shops it is around 85p per litre, I wonder how much of that is the bottle and how much is profit? Assuming the DfE is paying 85p per litre, the national bill for milk for the under 5s in childcare/education is a maximum of .85 x 160,000m = £136,000 million. This could all be saved, but at the cost of the dairy business I would think if the government stopped paying for milk for the under 5s?

Previous politicians have had their careers blighted by daring to make this suggestion – Edwina Curry and Margaret Thatcher, for example, but actually most Asian children are milk intolerant, and dairy intolerance is the most common one amongst Europeans with many European children having symptoms such as a permanently runny nose or stomach problems through drinking cows milk. Is this fair on a mixed race UK population? Shouldn’t we at least offer a choice to parents and their children via the day nurseries and schools – milk OR say a piece of fruit? 

Fit for cows, but not for humans?

We can only give cows milk to babies after an extensive altering of its chemical structure. Some children can tolerate cows milk at age one, some at three. It is high in calories and although there are lots of good vitamins and minerals these could be achieved with fruits and vegetables that have less side effects and are less likely to pile on the pounds to produce increasingly obese children.

Cows milk is meant for growing large, grass eating cows with extra stomachs, not humans. It often contains many hormones and chemicals unless organic milk is purchased. Cows milk is produced by taking calves away from their mothers soon after birth, a cruel practice for an animal, one that is repeated many times, and the calves are sometimes mistreated and killed very young if male, which is why increasing numbers of humans are becoming vegan.

Cows produce a lot of methane, and urine, that pollutes the natural world, which wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t a HUGE number of them. Because we have bred so many they are a key cause of global warming and water pollution and they are also a very inefficient way of feeding the planet compared to eating vegetables and fruits so if we want to stop global hunger we need to stop over supplying developed world countries such as ourselves with so much dairy produce. Some more forward thinking countries have changed their food pyramid to reflect this already. The UK produces and imports about 150% of what we actually need, so no surprise most of us are getting fatter and wasting huge amounts of food, not helped by us giving our children food to play with as well as eat (unlike the Australians who consider this very poor practice, I think quite correctly).

I think there is an argument to start phasing out the subsidy of milk for the under 5s by the tax payer, but meanwhile, at Tops Day Nurseries we will at least stop using the plastic bottles wherever possible and as soon as possible. We have started to debate the practice of providing daily milk with parents and the government, and I, for one, am now a vegan at home, but a flexitarian when out and about – flexitarians will eat/drink almost whatever is put in front of them and won’t cause a fuss if there’s meat or fish on the same plate/table and even eat it IF that’s the only option other than going very hungry!

In conclusion

So, from a specific single issue of being concerned about the huge pile of plastic milk bottles we were putting in the recycling every week, this is some of what we are doing in order to protect our children’s health and the natural world now and for generations to come:

1) Ask for sustainable packaging – e.g. glass milk bottles and not plastic or cartons, and certainly no straws, and start replacing all one-use plastic with alternatives.

2) Share information with parents, colleagues and suppliers, so people can make their own decisions, actions and suggestions and so we can all learn from each other as things are changing so much as we learn.

3) Ask the government/politicians to reconsider subsidising milk for all under 5s and subsidise fresh local fruit and veg. instead and make it financially more expensive to use unsustainable resources. Shall we start another petition?

4) Reduce our consumption to a sustainable level.

5) Stop ordering perfectly good food just to play with and share alternative ideas. Won’t you join us in trying to protect our children and the natural world we will leave to them? 

Cheryl Hadland

Cheryl Hadland

GECCO Founder & Trustee

Cheryl Hadland (MA Ed) is Managing Director of the Hadland Care Group – an umbrella company for Tops Day Nurseries and Aspire Training Team, Bournemouth. In 2018 she was named ‘most influential person in childcare’ at the NMT Top 20 National Nursery awards, and in the same year completed a Sustainable Leadership course at the University of Cambridge. Cheryl is an avid SCUBA diver with many years experience and has seen first-hand the devastating impact of plastic pollution on our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them.