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Best Zero Waste Milk Options?

This post has been updated as of 2/28/2024. This post has affiliate links. See disclaimer page to learn more.

I have made some dietary changes since 2017. Animal-based diets are less physically healthy (on average) and also worse for the environment. Physically speaking, goat milk is easier to digest and better for human digestion than cow milk, but I don’t have a goat in my backyard. Admittedly a few of my neighbors do. Goats are awesome by the way.

Humans have been drinking animal-based milk for about 7,500 years, but humans don’t farm like we did thousands of years ago. Modern farming practices are unsustainable. Lowering our meat and dairy consumption is the “‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth.”

I drink plant-based milk, but my family is not there yet. I’m trying. It’s a work in progress. So this post is geared toward the average family who is still consuming cow-based dairy products on a regular basis. It’s for the parents who pick up a gallon of milk on their way home from work. As the mother of two young children, I know this grind!

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What I love about the zero waste movement is that it means different things to different people. Ultimately my goal is threefold: systemic changes with big polluters, lower my onw personal waste stream, and advocate for humane farming practices. I personally prefer plant-based milk, but my family does not. So what could I do? I decided to find the best options I could. Due to sanitation requirements, package options for animal-based milk are limited to glass, cartons, or plastic. Each packaging option has its own positives and negatives.

Best Zero Waste Milk

Plant-Based Milks

Plant-based milks have lower carbon emissions than dairy. As a zero-waster, my primary focus is to lower my impact. That said, our individual emissions are nothing in comparison to large polluters or the 1%. For example,

So now that you know that IT’S NOT OUR FAULT, let’s talk about Cows and the benefit of plant-based milks.

Cows require large amounts of carbon-intensive cattle feed, they release large amounts of methane, increase deforestation, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Simply put, animal-based dairy products produce the most emissions.

There is also a question of ethics when it comes to dairy. Cows are impregnated, their male babies are sent to the veal factory, and the cows are used for their milk until they’re too old to produce. Then they get sold for cheap hamburger. It’s a brutal fact and one reason I prefer plant-based milk.

But all plant-based milks are NOT created equal. Some produce more emissions than others. Almond milk requires a lot of water and is pushing bees further into extinction. Soy milk has lower emissions and water usage, but it can trigger a hormonal imbalance if consumed in excess. Rice milk is a good option, but uses almost as much water as almonds. Cashew milk is low yielding.

My choice is Oat milk. Oat milk is the rock star of the plant-based milk world. Oat milk has low emissions, low land use, low water use, and it tastes wonderful. However, it does tend to be higher in sugar, so be sure to check the labels. It actually reminds me a little bit of almond milk. Other options I’ve seen are:

milk dairy plant based emissions

Dairy Milk in Plastic

Pros for Beverages in Disposable Plastic

Yes, in general, I am anti-disposable plastic, but plastic jugs do have several benefits:

Cons for Beverages in Disposable Plastic

It’s disposable plastic. Recycling disposable products and creating new products takes a tremendous amount of energy. It can only be recycled once (maybe twice) before it is downcycled (into toothbrushes), landfilled, or thrown in the oceans. As indicated in my post about disposable plastic producers, most beverage companies do not use recycled plastic in their manufacturing process.

Milk producers have additional sanitation considerations with milk. Even if beverage companies used recycled materials, the vast majority of disposable plastic is never recycled. Only about 30% of disposable plastic bottles are recycled. National Geographic claims the overall recycling figure is about 11%. Compare that to the 70% recycling rate of aluminum.

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Gable top cartons

Pros for Gable Top Cartons

Trees are a renewable resource (if managed properly). The gable cartons are made from new paper products and coated with a layer of low-density polyethylene. Recycled paper is not an option because it has already been broken down and is not strong enough to make beverage containers. Like plastic, cartons are very light to transport.

Cons for Gable Top Cartons

Typically more expensive per ounce than a plastic container. Paper products from new trees can be resource-intensive (water and fuel), particularly when they are being harvested. Gable top cartons are not recycled in many municipalities, so off to the landfill they go.

Glass

Pros for Glass Packaging

The primary ingredients for glass– sand, limestone, and soda ash. The products are accessible, but not necessarily renewable. Glass is easily sterilized, requiring little energy. Reusing glass (such as a milk delivery service) is an excellent option.

Cons for Glass Packaging

Producing glass bottles takes considerable energy. Most energy is produced through the burning of fossil fuels. Glass is heavy to ship, which increases transportation greenhouse gas emissions. Beverages in glass are cost-prohibitive. I calculated that I was paying $10/gallon (3.7 L) for milk delivery. This price was after a delivery discount, which I no longer qualify for. The price increased to $12/gallon, which was no longer affordable for my family. I switched to a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). You can learn all about how you can support your local farms.

Glass is becoming less valuable to recycle, particularly in smaller municipalities. A slew of municipalities have banned glass from their recycling streams because it’s contaminating other recycling and recycled glass is no longer in high demand.

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Verdict?

  1. Plant-based milk in ANY packaging is the best option. It has a much lower impact than animal-based milk and it can be fortified with the vitamins you need. Or you can make your own nut milk with this machine! It’s super easy. 
  2. The second best option is dairy milk in glass. Reusing and sanitizing glass requires less energy than plastic or gable cartons, but many people can’t afford a $12 (€10.86) gallon (3.7 L) of milk. This is one of the ways in which being zero waste is not financially feasible for everyone. It doesn’t seem realistic for a large family or a working-class family trying to make ends meet.
  3. The third option for families on a budget is dairy milk in a carton versus a plastic container. Most gable top cartons are not recycled, but most milk in plastic jugs are not recycled either. It is a matter of which option is better.
  4. The worst option is dairy milk in plastic containers. Milk cartons degrade at a faster rate than plastic milk containers. “Biodegradable” is greenwashing. Everything eventually biodegrades…albeit over hundreds or thousands of years. A landfill project found hot dogs from 1952 in a landfill. 65-year-old hot dogs. Landfills are anaerobic. They do not promote oxygen flow. A milk carton can theoretically degrade in under 10 years. A plastic jug can exist almost indefinitely.
  5. If possible buy ORGANIC. Organic milk doesn’t typically contain additives like recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or antibiotics. There’s some debate on this, but organically produced milk will typically requires better treatment of cattle. Organically bred cattle are required to spend a certain period of time grazing in open pastures, rather than feeding pens.

I hope you’ve enjoyed discussing zero waste milk. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please share with me in the comments or on Instagram




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