Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Milk Bag Culture

Canada and the United States are English speaking neighboring countries in North America with British roots. The differences between the two countries can be comparable to differences within the United States, say between Wyoming and Oregon or even between Vermont and New Hampshire.

Nonetheless, there are huge differences, for example the significant differences in political culture (see, for example, "Steyn's ThoughtCrime in Canada"). But the minor differences are intriguing. Canadians use electric kettles. Americans prefer to put their kettles on the stove top. The closest you get to a plug-in kettle in America are little "hot pots" for the office where there is no stove.

Perhaps even more interesting is the Canadian use of bagged milk. I have found little reliable information on this practice (on the internet; it has not been worth my time to visit the library on this matter, but I welcome any informative comments). I have these questions: When were they introduced? Why were they introduced? Who introduced them? Why have they never caught on in the United States?

When I was a child in Georgetown, Ontario, and later in the eastern suburbs of Toronto, we would get our milk in heavy plastic, refillable one gallon jugs. We would pay a deposit on the jug and return it in exchange for the next gallon. The dairy would sterilize and re-use them. The advantage of the plastic was not that it was disposable, but that it unbreakable in normal use.

It was perhaps in the later 1970s that plastic milk bags were introduced. These are tall, lightweight, clear plastic bags that hold about 1 litre of milk. You slip it into a plastic jug and snip off the corner of the bag that is opposite the handle. The bags come in larger bags of three.

When I was in elementary school, we used to bring our books to school in the larger outer milk bags. We weren't poor. That's just what we did. Mothers would use the milk bags themselves (there is an awkward ambiguity in this phrase "milk bag") as storage bags for freezing. They would just cut off the tops, wash them out, and use a twist tie to seal them up.

It was not as if one company introduced this packaging, consumers latched on to it, and other companies followed suit with it. It all happened at once. Milk production in Canada is overseen by the Canadian Dairy Commission, established in 1966. "Canada adopted the system of supply management for industrial milk in the early 1970s.This system was established to address the unstable markets, uncertain supplies and highly variable producer and processor revenues that were common in the 1950s and 1960s." It's a little bit of Soviet efficiency in the midst of a capitalist economy.

It could not have been this government agency that co-ordinated the introduction of bagged milk however because the bags are not found in every part of Canada. Prior to the national agency, Ontario established a Milk Marketing Board which continues to regulate production, distribution and pricing. "In 1960, Ontario milk producer organizations were fragmented and lacked unity in purpose. Their bargaining position in the marketplace was very weak. Returns to the vast majority of milk producers for labour, management and investment were inadequate and there were numerous inequities and inefficiencies in the milk marketing system. Because of this chaos, the Ontario government commissioned a study in 1963 to determine how to solve what appeared to be an ever increasing problem." This "chaos" is otherwise known as the free market. Nonetheless, the OMMB was established in 1965. I don't know what the relationship is between the the CDC and the OMMB. But the Canadian approach is: "When in doubt, add another layer of government supervision." Otherwise, you might have "chaos" which leads to "inequity."

The introduction of bags could not have been for environmental reasons (or, as we would have said at the time, to reduce pollution). It was almost certainly to reduce packaging and distribution costs. The bags are lighter to ship and because they are disposable there are no retrieval and sterilization costs. From an environmental standpoint, Canadians toss less plastic than Americans do when they crush down and toss those light plastic jugs. The jugs can be recycled--though not always are, and the recycling itself burns fuel--but the bags can also be recycled as well as used for other purposes.

When I was living in Iowa for several years, a gas station food mart in Independence was promoting milk in bags and giving away the jugs, but it never caught on.

The other night, I saw some sort of twenty-fourth anniversary of the McKenzie Brothers'--billed as a Doug and Bob 2-4. They were touted as the internationally recognized emblem of Canadian culture. Even former Prime Minister Paul Martin was involved as host of the production. It was entertaining, but embarrassing and pitiful. After 140 years of confederation, that is the best we can do? I think that bagged milk tells us more about Canadians.

1 comment:

PJ Vlok said...

Check this out as a possible solution: