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The return of the Milk Man - A reuse system in the US

Updated: Mar 6

Reuse systems are growing, and we are interested in how they work in different countries. In Germany, where PSL started, a very well-established reuse system is in place for beverage and beer bottles. In the US we came across a system that is used by the Straus Family Creamery, a dairy company based in Petaluma, CA. Since 1994 their products are distributed using returnable glass bottles.

How does the system work?

This is one of the reuse systems that is in place in the US for dairy products. Straus uses distinct glass bottles in different sizes for their products, always decorated with their unique print. The same bottle shape is used by other dairy companies – always individually printed. This shows clear ownership of the bottles to each dairy company. All bottles are made by the same glass manufacturer.

A deposit of 3 dollars is paid for the bottle and the amount encourages people to return them after use. Each distributor must accept to set the collection and return process of the bottles and deposit. Currently, the return rate is around 75-80%, with companies aiming to increase it to 90%. For Straus, the bottles are shipped only in states along the west coast, as nationwide shipment would impair the sustainability advantage.

Reusing bottles up to five times before recycling them provides a more sustainable alternative to single-use plastic, despite glass being heavier. Straus program prevents around 225 tonnes of plastic from reaching landfills annually.

Some retailers initially view these systems as a logistical challenge, in some cases even telling producers to use single-use bottles. Shipping breakages increase costs, and uninformed consumers may not return the bottles, leaving room for improvement.

How to leverage PSL to improve efficiency?

For closed-loop systems such as the one a locally managed approach is better to achieve sustainability benefits. Open loop systems with multiple partners using the same packaging type but without direct printing can offer advantages for nationwide distribution. Unprinted bottles can drive the adoption of the system as pooling of bottles is easier. Consumer education for reuse is always critical to driving behavior change for sustainability.


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