The Great Milk-Pouch Debate: Hard-shelled vs. Soft-shelled Containers

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As Canadians we have our own food traditions and tastes, including ketchup-flavored potato chips, maple-flavored butter tarts and of course, poutine. Also, and fairly unique to eastern Canada, if you need a gallon or so of milk, you’ll find that it’s sold in a soft plastic, three bag-set inside a larger plastic bag.

Milk pouches have been around in Canada since the 1970s. But they’ve only stayed popular in the east, in Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes which, as a region, is home to about two-thirds of all Canadians.

Up until the late 1960s, milk was packaged mostly in glass bottles, a major cost for the dairy industry to produce and transport to and from the dairy. They are heavy, breakable, and costly to clean. Then, in 1967 the American company DuPont introduced a thin polyethylene milk bag they named the pillow pouch to the Canadian market as a glass-bottle alternative. A few years later their innovation got a big marketing boost, courtesy of the Canadian government.

Canada’s transition from the Imperial system to the metric system in the mid 1970s forced dairy, and packaging companies, to change their container sizes to liters. The soft plastic pouches adapted more easily in some parts of the Canadian market. But not all regions.

Dan Wong, marketing director with the Western Dairy Council, thinks the American market’s continued use of ridged containers had more influence in the Canadian west.

“I think the shift took place, less as result of a movement away from plastic bags and more to sort of the attraction of rigid plastic milk jugs, which became popular in the market, particularly in Western Canada in the late 1980’s. There was a little bit of familiarity with the rigid plastic jugs amongst people who’d sort of seen them in the United States.”

Canada is not the only place where bagged milk is sold. Parts of the upper US mid-west offer the pouch, and milk in bags can also be found in South Africa, Argentina, Israel, Uruguay, Hungary, and in China.

But, back in Canada, Rick Walker, an American living in Auburn Hills, Michigan, crossed the Detroit River to visit family in Windsor, Ontario, for the Christmas holidays. He joined his cousin on a local grocery store visit to pick up some bread and milk. Walker just wasn’t comfortable with the whole bagged milk concept.

“This isn’t milk, is it? Why would you put it in a bag? Why would you need to do that? Why not just put them in the carton and then save yourself the trouble of having to put this in a bag? Something about milk in a bag, it just feels very… unstable. I’m really uncomfortable about this whole area, I don’t like it.”

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