Now reading What’s Up with Bagged Milk?

What’s Up with Bagged Milk?

A look at its odd history.

Ask a Canadian if they drink milk from a bag and, depending on which end of the country they’re from, you’ll get a different answer: Canadians from the east (especially Ontario and Quebec) will say, “Yes, doesn’t everyone? Wait…why are you looking at me like that?” and Canadians from the west (roughly Manitoba to British Columbia), will dismiss you out of hand, “No, that’s fucking weird. It’s not a Canadian thing; it’s an Ontario thing.”

Before answering the question of how we became (at least half) a bagged-milk-drinking nation, I’ll note that Canada isn’t the only country where milk in a bag is available. Russia and Argentina are milk baggers, and in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Kwik Trip and Kwik Star convenience stores have been selling individual half-gallon pouches of milk (with the pitcher needed to dispense them) for over thirty years.

In 1966, DuPont—in cooperation with the Guaranteed Pure Milk Co.—test-marketed their milk-in-pouches system for the first time, starting in Montreal and following with Vancouver. This was back in the era of milk delivery, and instead of sending customers the standard three-quart bottle, customers received three one-quart pouches along with a one-quart plastic pitcher to pour them from.

The merits of the bags were and are debatable. That they were unbreakable when dropped, and they were inarguably space-savers, since they could be stored flat in unused nooks of the refrigerator, unlike traditional milk cartons and bottles.

But bagged milk’s steady takeover of a large portion of the Canadian milk market didn’t start in earnest until 1970, when the country set out to switch from the imperial to the metric system. One imperial gallon of milk equaled 4.54 liters, which is an unreasonable quantity to sell milk in. This meant that all milk containers would have to be resized.

Around this time, bag milk scored a win with mini-sip pouches—DuPont’s 200 ml bag of milk (which would later also be available in chocolate) that comfortably fit in a child’s hand. They were introduced in 1973 and became an accessory to school lunches. (Sales declined in Canada in the 1990s, but they can still be found in parts of the United States and South America.)

By 1975, the dairy industry was well on its way to metric conversion, except for fluid milk—saving what seemed most difficult and costly for last. Eventually, economics helped them make their decision: it was far more efficient to give in to the ease and adjustability of machines that filled sizable bags of milk as opposed to adjusting to the conversion with the costly burden of replacing returnable containers and other filling systems. By 1980, the cutoff date for the imperial-to-metric change, milk bags proliferated the market across Canada.

Since the ’80s pouch boom, Western provinces have mostly replaced bagged milk with plastic jugs, and cartons lead the industry nationwide in terms of smaller format milk, two liters and below.

History aside, I learned while talking to my countrymen about their histories with bagged milk that many people do not know how to properly deploy it. If you are asking yourself, “How does one drink milk from a bag?” Let me lay out the steps:

1. Buy bagged milk with complimentary milk pitcher (available at participating grocery stores where your milk is sold).

2. Place a pouch of milk into the pitcher and always set the bag all the way to the bottom.

3. Make a triangle cut in one corner, and add a tiny air hole for a smoother pour. Boom. Done. If you’re worried about freshness, some Canadians use a milk clip to seal the opened bag. Others are astounded that a milk clip even exists.

And for the environmentally conscious readers out there, you might wonder: what happens with all those plastic bags? Recycling rules vary between cities; the inner milk pouches have been part of Montreal’s plastic recycling program for years (smaller 1.3-liter pouches are often sold inside a larger 4-liter bag), Toronto began accepting them in June 2015, and Ottawa residents still put the pouches in the regular garbage.

As for the outer bags, which take a long time to disintegrate in landfills, some reuse them as bags while others weave them into mats for those without beds, a nonprofit initiative launched in Toronto after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Now there are over three hundred organizations in Eastern Canada making waterproof, bug-proof, milk-bag mats that can last for twenty-five years. It looks like bagged milk, at least in Ontario, is here to stay.