Agribusiness, Sustainability

“Packaging has been tricky”: How this 133-year-old dairy company made 17 million cartons more sustainable

Matthew Elmas /

One of Australia’s oldest dairy companies has switched its old cartons out for ones with bio-lined packaging in a bid to move away from fossil-fuel derived polyethylene plastics.

Western Australian Brownes Dairy will replace the 17.8 million or so milk cartons it sells each year with a relatively new packaging solution that utilises bioplastics derived from sugar cane.

The new cartons are hitting shelves this week, and according to chief executive Tony Girgis, the move is a milestone for the company, which has been taking steps to develop a more sustainable business for a number of years.

“We’ve been focusing on reducing our overall impact on the environment,” Girgis tells SmartCompany.

The 133-year-old dairy company has managed to save tonnes of freshwater and milk through changes to its processing program recently, but taking steps to improve packaging has been more difficult.

“Packaging has been tricky,” Girgis explains. “You have to think about the effective shelf-life of products.”

As a perishable good, milk must meet an array of food safety requirements throughout production, packaging and eventual transport to retail stores, which essentially means cartons need to keep milk fresh and insulated from the outside environment.

Traditionally, manufacturers have turned to polyethylene plastics as the solution for the lining on the inside of milk cartons. These plastics, used around the world in everything from bottles to single-use bags, are created using fossil fuel-intensive processes.

In a bid to develop a more sustainable carton, packaging giant Tetra Pak and Finnish dairy company Valio released new cartons in 2015, billed as more sustainable because the plastic lining is sourced from a less carbon-intensive production of bioplastics, derived from sugar cane and wood fibres.

Brownes

Brownes has switched 25 of its milk products over to the new cartons. Source: supplied.

Tetra Pak spun the product out into its new Rex range, which has now been sold more than 500 billion times globally, with Brownes one of the companies latest customers.

“From a sustainability point of view, the issue has always been about the amount of plastic inside the [carton] layer,” Girgis explains.

“What they’ve managed to do is use sugar cane as the barrier, and the second step they’ve taken is that the entire pack is now from sustainable sources.”

Brownes has switched over 25 of its products to the new packaging, passing on no additional cost to customers and ensuring the cartons are visually unchanged on shelves. 

Girgis says a broader shift is underway in Australia’s dairy industry, with producers increasingly looking at ways to reduce the environmental footprint of their operations.

Customers, investors and employees are pushing the change across the market, Girgis says.

“It makes commercial and social sense,” he says.

The amount of time it takes for plant-based plastics to break down in the environment varies and not all plant-based plastics are biodegradable as they don’t completely break down into water.

And while there are also concerns among scientists that a broader shift to bioplastics may have other environmental consequences, these plant-based alternatives do break down in the environment faster than their traditional counterparts. 

Tetra Pak hopes cartons such as Rex will serve as transitional solutions for companies before further technological developments enable a shift to even more environmentally friendly bioplastic products.

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany. You can contact him at [email protected].