Farm Ireland

Saturday 15 December 2018

Milk floats and glass bottles make a comeback in UK as shoppers shun plastic

Fr Dougal (Ardal O'Hanlon) in the milk float from the Father Ted episode Speed 3
Fr Dougal (Ardal O'Hanlon) in the milk float from the Father Ted episode Speed 3

Sarah Knapton

For anyone who grew up in the 1980s or earlier, the gentle clinking of glass bottles and electric whirr of the milk-float were as familiar to the morning soundscape as the dawn chorus.

Yet by the 1990s major supermarkets had switched to cheap plastic bottles, buying in bulk to drive down prices, and leaving the milkie struggling for business.

However glass bottled milk is making a comeback. Buoyed by growing fears about the impact of plastic on the environment, milkmen are reporting an increase in interest for the traditional ‘pinta’.

Mark Woodman, 56, who runs Woodman’s Dairy in Rumney, Cardiff, has recently spent thousands refurbishing his old milk float to meet the new demand, which he puts down to recent pledges to tackle plastic waste by the government and industry.


“This week and last week we’ve been inundated with phone calls asking us if we deliver glass bottles,” he said.

“We’ve had 50 to 100 people call in this week, with 30 to 40 new customers off the internet looking to cut down on their use of plastic.

“It’s great for us. Anything that gives us a bit of business back from the supermarkets is really good for us.”

Earlier this month Theresa May, the Prime Minister,  announced plans to scrap all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, in the government’s 25 year Environmental Place, which could also see an extra tax on one-use plastic items.

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In 1975, 94 per cent of milk was put into glass bottles, but that had fallen to under three per cent by 2016. However despite ongoing slumps in sales of cow milk, as people switch to nut, rice and soya options, the market for glass bottles milk appears to be holding steady, and even slightly increasing.

Dairy UK which represents the milk industry, said doorstep deliveries of glass bottles were now around one million per day. Just two years ago the figure was estimated to be nearer 800,000.

Mr Woodman said he was receiving up to 140 enquiries a week from people looking to switch from plastic to glass, and said sales of glass in traditional bottles had risen by around 30 per cent in the past two years.

Parker Daries in East London has also reported ‘small but significant’ rises in the numbers of bottles of milk ordered in the past two years, with 80,000 pints a week now sold. The company has a fleet of 25 milk floats, but until recently sales had been declining by between five and eight per cent a year.

And even the larger milk providers are starting to back the trend. In 2016, the dairy giant Muller bought Hanworth Dairy in South West London from Dairy Crest and pledged to save its glass bottling plant and delivery service which had been earmarked for closure.

The company has since created the ‘Milk&More’ service, bringing bottled milk and other products to 600,000 doorsteps across the country. Patrick Muller, the head of ‘Milk&More’ said glass milk bottles were ‘part of the fabric of British life.’

Pensworth Dairy in Wiltshire also recently upgraded its glass bottle production facility after doubling turnover in recent years.

Milkmen first emerged in the 1860s with the advent of the railways, which allowed milk to be carried freshly and cheaply from farms into towns and cities. Originally it was wheeled between houses in a large churn.

By the early 1900s, milkmen were delivering glass bottles using horse and carts, sometimes three times a day, as there was little refrigeration. When most people began to buy fridges in the 1950s, the round switched to once-a-day.

There are estimated to be still around 5,000 milkmen left making daily deliveries in Britain.

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