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The Milkman Model Returns, This Time for Shampoo and Haagen-Dazs (bloomberg.com)
45 points by hhs 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 64 comments

The cost of returning containers whole, washing, inspecting, rejecting breakages outweighs the benefits.

It would be much more efficient to use extremely lightweight containers that can be crushed in a reverse vending machine in any supermarket.

That's how returnable bottles and cans work here in Norway (and several other European and Scandinavian countries). At the moment it only covers drinks containers but that is probably because they are the only ones that pose a major littering problem.

See https://www.tomra.com/en/collection/reverse-vending

This way the energy cost of returning the containers is minimised and the returned material is suitable for immediate, industrial scale, automated recycling.

But of course that doesn't allow the producer to use just any container so it limits their branding opportunities.

Edit: removed repeated link.

Yeah but it locks you in. Another example of how the hysteria around climate change is exploited by companies for profit. Once you buy Tide washing liquid in a returnable container there's a higher cost barrier switching to another brand. Unless they standardize the packaging this is a pure profit move.

On a broader note I often wonder if all the talk about climate change and plastics is not fueled by corporations ready to exploit it. I just cannot believe that a topic can suddenly become so big without an agenda behind it.

I'm here for this. The less plastic garbage we pump out, the better. Why packaging is considered single use is beyond me.

Edit: Even better if it can be optimized for shipping, but I know not everything packages into a cube shape easily.

> Why packaging is considered single use is beyond me.

People used to get ice cream in reusable containers.

It spread tuberculosis and cholera. People died.


That was an emotional journey for such a short comment, thank you. One thought from the example of the penny lick. You could decide not to have reusable packaging because of that, or you could decide to have reusable packaging that is designed to be cleaned.

> You could decide not to have reusable packaging because of that, or you could decide to have reusable packaging that is designed to be cleaned.

One of those alternatives is vastly inferior to the other. The ice cream dish has to be cleaned by someone you don't know, producing a result you can't observe.

Glass bowls are designed to be cleaned. That was the original system.

> One of those alternatives is vastly inferior to the other. The ice cream dish has to be cleaned by someone you don't know, producing a result you can't observe.

Basically every restaurant and bar will serve you food and drink in reusable dishes, yet we don't see big outbreaks of tuberculosis from them.

According to the article posted, these were not.

>After finishing their ice cream, customers handed back their well-licked penny lick, and the next customer ate from the same cup. Because of the conical openings, Jacks couldn’t keep the narrow point clean if they tried. Penny licks became the perfect vessel for transmitting disease.

I suspect we might be able to improve on this, perhaps with some kind of new fangled sanitising machinery, more suited to this bright new modern age of steam. No, wait, I'm getting it wrong. Remind me, which century are we in again?

21st! You'll have to grab the soggy waffle cone from my cold dead hands!

> According to the article posted, these were not.

>> After finishing their ice cream, customers handed back their well-licked penny lick, and the next customer ate from the same cup. Because of the conical openings, Jacks couldn’t keep the narrow point clean if they tried. Penny licks became the perfect vessel for transmitting disease.

Yes, it says that.

The article also has some photographs of period penny licks. The description in the text doesn't match.

We could invent some new fangled name like washing for this advanced new process you have in mind.

I think this thread is in the 18th, but can't be sure. :)

Do you drink beer? Beer bottles are often recycled (meaning washed and reused) by smaller breweries.

I'm sure that is a thing of the past.

Considering that there are now cloth diaper services where used diapers are cleaned and reused, where of course you get a bunch of clean diapers, not necessarily the ones your babies had used, I'm sure that reusable food containers can be cleaned and sanitized properly.

> Why packaging is considered single use is beyond me.


There was an interesting article (I think?), I read somewhere (maybe linked to from here?) about all the disease spread by ice cream sandwiches in the 1910s. Individually wrapped single use packaging really was a response to diseases killing many children.

I did find this interesting article [1] that might fit your description. It gives some history around ice cream poisonings, Victor Vaughan, and the advancement of bacteriology:

For instance, prior to the development of the ice cream cone, street vendors often served their ice cream in reusable glass dishes. Often made of thick glass to create the appearance that they contained more ice cream than they actually did, these “penny licks” were simply wiped out and reused rather than being washed.26 Later in the century the more hygienic “hokey-pokey”—an individual serving of ice cream wrapped in paper—became popular.27 Besides avoiding the unsanitary “penny lick,” the hokey-pokey also discouraged the notorious practice of refreezing unsold melted ice cream and serving it to unsuspecting customers. As melted ice cream provided an ideal environment for the reproduction of bacteria, this noxious product surely caused many food poisoning cases.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/26305867


Well, surely it doesn't matter as much for non-perishable items? To say nothing of the non-food items.

In the modern era?

Yes, the diseases are still there. They always will be.

We don't have such a big problem with them as we used to, because of responses like single-use packaging.

Moving back to reusable food containers is the same basic impulse that tells people they should stop getting vaccines because, after all, nobody catches measles in the modern day.

I agree with your premise, but your conclusion overlooks the fact that we are much better at sterilizing things and understanding how diseases work now than we were a century ago.

If that were true, there would probably be less of "why packaging is considered single use is beyond me" going around. Anyone who understands how diseases work will understand why you wouldn't want all your food to come in contact with the same single physical object.

California tried to outlaw grocery bags provided by the store, instead encouraging you to bring your own bags from home. The morality having been established, it's now very important to my mother to live up to the environmental ideal and bring her own bags. She's been doing it for years.

Those bags have never been washed.

Also, she's a doctor.

I haven’t ever heard of someone getting sick from a canvas tote bag. Do you have any evidence this happens?

Has disease spread wildly within your family?

But, we are largely unchanged in basic human behavior. Just because we can sterilize things consistently and reliably, doesn't mean it will get done, particularly when doing that costs more.

But now we have autoclaves =)

Don't the emissions from the home delivery and pickup offset any good done by re-using the containers?

This is the crucial part. If the transport depends essentially on petrol, why care about the plastic? Plastic comes from petrol and is first used as a container, then to produce heat when burning it. If single-use container helps improve the logistics, then I don't think it is the main issue.

I remember reading about an explanation about the sub-packaging of biscuits. Consumers would complain that a pack of biscuits contained multiple packs of biscuits itself. But it all made sense when accounting for the fact that biscuits go stale, and producing them takes more energy than storing them in smaller packages inside the main package.

This all assumes a correct treatment of plastic containers. But my point is that the main issue lies with logistics, that produces lots of CO2, rather than with containers.

If you think about it, the emissions already occur when trucks drive goods to the shops, then people drive to the shop then drive home.

I have thought about that, but when people shop, they pick up dozens of things at once. Having them delivered singly from different vendors seems like a lot more trips, plus the return-packaging trip.

We can absolutely get ride of single use packaging. This will come at a cost, which may include things like: Expending energy to wash dishes, expending energy to transport containers around to and from being washed, and disease/death when it all goes wrong.

I believe this is less of a technology issue than a culture/adoption issue, and if widely adopted, could really improve consumer efficiency.

The idea makes plenty of sense from both a producer and a consumer standpoint. Packaging, especially when not automated, accounts for a significant portion of the cost of goods for many basic goods.

You already see this in grocery stores: the deli counter and often the nuts/grains sections, and I'd argue the produce section use minimal packaging. Expanding this to other sections seems like a pretty straightforward to reduce deadweight, if consumers adopt the practice.

I wish grocery stores near me had better bulk goods sections. I notice the ones that exist are currently presented as upscale choices, and are often more expensive than the packaged goods.

I think consumers will widely adopt the practice when it lowers, or at least doesn't increase, their grocery bill.

Bulk foods section are a disease vector, though. I see both unattended kids and adults "grazing" in the bulk section of stores like Sprouts, hand to bin to mouth to hand to bin, repeat across the spectrum of bulk goodies.

I've seen kids wet their fingers in their mouths and "dip" them into bins as their parents watch, unconcerned.

On their way to the store, most bulk products have been expectorated on by a number of sweaty men in dirty boots. It's not obvious to me how packaging would lower that number.

> I wish grocery stores near me had better bulk goods sections.

Do you have a wholesale near you, such as Costco?

Costco fits a rather different definition of “bulk”. They carry 50 lb bags of rice, but they don’t have dispensers where you can fill your own bag and pay by weight, which is what GP was almost certainly referring to.

Try a local food coop.

My mom and pop butcher uses old school butcher paper to wrap my steaks which he cuts after I tell him what I want. The local chain used styrofoam, cold packs, and plastic wrap.

The popularity of packaged goods (even though bulk goods are pretty well available) provides some contrary evidence that it would improve consumer efficiency (at least if you measure what consumers think instead of cost/calorie or whatever).

Things like prepared vegetables and prepackaged deli meats are getting more popular, not less popular.

This is an interesting concern for the big companies because a lot of bulk grocery items in the US are generic. Like, when I buy bulk peanuts they're just peanuts, not Planters™ peanuts. I've noticed that a grocery store near me house has laundry and dish soap in bulk dispensers, which has a brand on it, but I think the containers are unbranded. This would be a big problem if Tide™ were sold that way. Another problem for the big companies is keeping people from putting other brands in the nice reusable packages.

Bulk dispensers are already the standard in commercial/institutional settings. Motor oil often comes in boxes (like boxed wine) now.

My mechanic gets his motor oil in an oil drum to which he attaches a hand pump to dispense it.

Yeah, you can still get 1gal and 5qg jugs, 5gal buckets and 55gal drums but boxes are becoming more common.

For example:


I like this idea. I wouldn't have a problem bringing my Tide branded reusable dispenser to my local store to refill it with Tide. I like Tide, it's a good product. We have all recently been retrained to bring reusable bags to the grocery store, hell, what's one more container to bring.

Or perhaps I would leave my Tide refillable container by the curb and some dude in a Tide truck would stop by and refill it and put it on the porch. It's like Filld but not for gas. Or maybe the Filld truck could have a bunch of different liquids on it, not just fuel.

The obvious (though depressing) solution to this is DRM on the containers and dispensers.

Juicero was right after all. /s

There's enough margin in premium consumables to cater to customer whims like this.

Until the value priced product lines and retailers start doing this it's not gonna make a dent whatsoever in plastic usage. This is a nice step but the model is not useful yet because it only works at the top of the market.

There are some Whole Foods in New Jersey where you can buy milk and chocolate milk in glass containers. They cost a dollar or two more but get the difference back when you return the glass bottle. The actual price of the contents is pretty close to the milk available in plastic containers. Pretty close to what loop is doing

Ronnybrook Dairy sells milk and milk products in thick glass bottles which you can return and get the 2 dollars back.

Something like this really could have an impact on reducing garbage. Combine this with more and more people switching to grocery delivery and it could actually work!

Loop (https://loopstore.com) is by Terracycle? I'm glad they're still doing well after their natural fertilizer lawsuit fight with Scotts Miracle-Gro.

Too bad this is only available in a few states in the North East.

Ha, I was just wondering about this recently. It's great to see that someone is exploring this idea.

1. https://i.imgur.com/MYQ1uTl.png

Agreed. I've been thinking that we need a universal deposit system for disposable items. Tag, collect a deposit, and make companies responsible for end-to-end managing the stream of waste their products create.

There was an interesting thread on reddit just recently that is related:


It would be simpler to just have an environment tax.

Setting the tax rates is roughly equivalent to the problem of setting reasonable and effective deposits, but everything else is simpler.

Not really that simple. Have to ensure correct taxation and collection of $2 bottle. The tax could also be misused (what, you think it would go 100% to disposing?)

It would be simpler to make producers take back non recyclable/biodegradable waste. Why should excessive waste issues be imposed on government or people instead of the producers?

Every piece of plastic you have ever encountered still exists somewhere. Think about that. Humans create a STAGGERING amount of trash and we need to stop.

Why is Bloomberg using the subject's propaganda photos for their article?

So staged photos shot by Bloomberg would add sufficient value to the article to lead you to pay more? (Or, for that matter, would add any real editorial value at all?)

It doesn't need staged photos either. But yes, they would be better in terms of not being deliberately set up to make the product look good (although often newspapers do that too).

SEO is helped by having graphics with articles whether or not they add editorial value. Whether it's generic graphics or stock/staged photos. So good luck convincing people not to use cheap photos/graphics for stories.

It's just photos of the product, why shouldn't they?

It's "just" subject-provided photos designed to put the product in the best possible light.

it _is_ PR

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