World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Glass of milk

Got Bulk Milk?

  • Date: 06 December 2022
  • Author: Alex Vinueza-Nichols, Program Manager, Food Loss & Waste

Whoever says there’s no use crying over spilled milk obviously hasn’t seen a recent study by Triangle Associates and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which found that K-12 schools in the US waste 45 million gallons of milk annually, at great cost to taxpayers and the planet. In the process of producing, transporting, cooling, and storing milk no one drinks, the nation uses nearly 10,000 Olympic swimming pools worth of water and emits carbon pollution equivalent to 77,000 gas-powered vehicles—year after year. Fortunately, we’ve identified a way to lower costs to people and the planet, while also addressing nutrition intake: transition from individual milk cartons to bulk milk dispensers (BMDs).

A BMD is a reusable, refillable container that can hold a 3–5-gallon bag of cooled liquid milk, with multiple spigots that students and teachers can use to serve themselves in the school cafeteria. Growing evidence shows that BMDs can (1) reduce packaging and milk waste, (2) lower the cost of purchasing, disposal, and refrigeration for schools, (3) help improve nutrition by increasing overall milk consumption, and (4) spare future generations the trauma of struggling to open a milk carton. Okay, I added that last one, but c’mon, we’ve all been there.

Think about it this way: every time a student is too busy chatting at the lunch table to finish their carton of milk, that results in packaging waste and milk waste—around 32 wasted cartons per student per year. Compare that to BMD milk waste of only 4.5 carton equivalents per student, at just 14% of current carton milk waste. When scaled up to account for the millions of K-12 students across the country, these impacts are significant.

That said, BMDs come with their own set of challenges. The primary challenge for schools is the initial set-up costs—including, among other things, the acquisition of an industrial dishwasher to clean all the reusable cups students will be using. In many cases, schools are able to offset those costs within around 2 years with the savings that BMDs yield on trash disposal and recycling fees, as well as milk purchasing and energy costs.

To help overcome this potential hurdle, WWF and Triangle Associates developed a Cost Savings Estimate Calculator that schools can use to project potential cost savings against start-up costs to build a stronger business case. In addition, the study outlines lessons learned and key recommendations for schools that are interested in making the switch. These include seeking financial support and technical assistance from local dairy councils, non-profits, and other partners; working with green teams and student clubs to track data when conducting milk waste audits; and integrating BMDs into broader sustainability strategies.

All in all, the study on milk waste in US schools underscores the intersection between human health, economic prosperity, and the health of the planet. A change as simple as shifting from individual milk cartons to bulk dispensers can become the new normal for a more sustainable future.

Read the full report here.