Return of the Milkman

The milkman on his early morning round, leaving glass bottles of fresh milk on people’s doorsteps, used to be a familiar sight in Britain around 40 or 50 years ago.

Along with the gentle whirring sound of the electric milk float, you could wake up to the clinking sound of glass bottles, seven days a week.


© goodluz | Jenny Thompson / Adobe Stock


Milkman origins

The tradition of the milkman providing doorstep deliveries began in rural America in the 18th century. The practice spread to the UK, where local farmers would deliver milk from their dairy direct to people’s doors.

Initially, deliveries took place in a horse-drawn cart and householders would take their own jugs and bowls out to the milk float. The milkman would pour out the milk from huge barrels.

Glass milk bottles were patented in 1878 and used for the first time in 1879. In 1884, a new glass milk bottle with a cap was designed by Henry Thatcher. They continued to evolve over the years, and by the 1920s, the glass bottle had advertisements and other designs etched on to the glass with a sandblasting technique.

During the 20th century, the milkman would sell all kinds of other foodstuffs, including eggs, cream, cheese, yoghurt, butter, soft drinks and potatoes. There was a deposit scheme on the pop bottles to encourage customers to leave the empties on their doorstep with the empty milk bottles.

Horse-drawn milk floats were gradually replaced by electric and motorised vehicles. Customers knew exactly where their milk was coming from and they could rest assured that it was fresh from the farm.


Decline of milk delivery

In the latter part of the 20th century, home delivery of milk began to decline sharply. In the early to mid-1900s, few homes had a refrigerator. Householders were reliant on milk being delivered every day to ensure its freshness.

By the 1940s, more households were buying their own fridge. This was the beginning of the end for the UK’s army of milkmen, as people could buy milk in bulk and keep it fresh in their fridge for two or three days.

Grocery stores began selling milk, bread, meat and dry foods, enabling customers to buy everything under one roof. With the boom in supermarkets, and as more people had a car, customers began doing a big weekly shop that would include milk at a cheaper price.


Plastic cartons

Glass milk bottles were gradually replaced by plastic containers and wax paper cartons. In the 1960s, the glass bottles containing one-third of a pint of milk for school children were replaced by the Tetra Pak. By 2010, 140 billion Tetra Pak drinks containers were being produced every year.

The most popular container for fresh milk is the semi-transparent white plastic bottle, with a built-in handle for easy lifting and pouring. According to the 2017 government report, Turning Back the Plastic Tide, UK consumers use around 13 billion plastic bottles a year for milk, other drinks and toiletries.

Of the high-density polyethylene bottles that hold milk, around 75% of them are recycled. However, this still leaves millions of plastic bottles that add to our waste problem, which affects our oceans, land and food chain. In the 1980s, 94% of milk was sold in glass bottles. This was down to just 4% by 2012 as plastic took over.

The British milk industry was deregulated in the 1990s, so supermarket milk in plastic cartons could be sold much cheaper. This put many milkmen out of business, as they couldn’t compete price-wise.

Today, according to the industry body, Dairy UK, of the 5.5 billion litres of milk sold each year in the UK, only 3% is delivered by the milkman. In 2014, the major milk supplier Dairy Crest revealed it was to close its final glass bottling plant, in favour of plastic milk bottles.


Return of the milkman?

There are signs that the milkman may be making a comeback. Milk and More, the UK’s latest doorstep delivery service, says the number of inquiries about milk delivery is on the increase.

The company delivers 100 million pints of milk, in glass bottles, to around half a million homes across the UK each year.

In Walthamstow, London, Parker Dairies’ milk delivery business has stabilised over the past five years. They now deliver to some 12,000 customers each week. Customers like the glass bottles and the eco-friendly electric milk floats, and they are delighted they are supporting a local business. They don’t mind paying a higher price because they like the personal service. In particular, older and vulnerable customers prefer having their milk delivered.

In bygone days, the milkman would notice if an elderly person hadn’t taken in their milk and would raise the alarm if they suspected something was wrong. Parker Dairies says that for some of their customers, speaking to the milkman is the only human contact they have all week.


Moving with the times

Today’s milkmen have had to move with the times – personal customer service and nostalgia for bygone times aren’t enough to assure their survival and the businesses have had to adapt. Some milkmen start their round at 11 pm at night because, in many households, people have left for work before 8 am, so there’s no-one to take in the milk in the morning.

Milkmen are also starting to sell an increasing range of goods – as well as groceries, they also bring everything from toilet rolls to garden compost.

In some areas, the milkman is embracing the digital age, which is in conflict with the image of the friendly milkman checking that people are okay and having a chat on the doorstep.

Some customers have expressed a preference for ordering and paying online and even the smaller dairies are having to move with the times, with a website and a presence on Facebook and Twitter.


Pros and cons of glass

It may seem eco-friendlier if glass milk bottles are making a comeback, thus reducing the amount of plastic bottles, but some environmental groups have pointed out this has drawbacks too.

On the plus side, glass bottles can be sterilised and reused up to 50 times before they need to be recycled. This reduces their carbon footprint significantly. However, glass bottles are heavier and therefore need more fuel for transportation.

Friends of the Earth points out that glass-making uses lots of energy, as the raw materials (including silica from sand, limestone and soda ash) must be heated to around 1,600°C before they will melt together. Then, they must be cooled and formed into a glass bottle shape.

New technology over the past 30 years has improved the glass manufacturing process, with energy consumption having halved. The latest systems will capture and recover heat from the glass furnaces and it can be used to heat water or generate electricity for businesses.


Cost of a pint

At the end of the day, cost is the deciding factor for many consumers. Research shows that the average cost of milk delivered in a glass bottle is 60p to £1 per pint, with organic milk at the top end of the price range. This makes it hard to compete with supermarket milk, which can cost as little as £1 for four pints in a large plastic bottle.

All things considered, it remains to be seen whether the milkman will make a significant comeback, or whether supermarket milk will continue to rule.

What are your views on the traditional milkman? Would you be happy to pay a bit extra for your milk if it meant you could enjoy a more personal service? Don’t forget, you could also cut down on the use of harmful plastic!

Maybe I’m a little bit old school, but I personally would very much like to see the return of the milkman – I think there is a lot to be said for some good old-fashioned values.

Share your experiences of milk deliveries on Psydro’s customer reviews platform and let other people know whether you think the milkman should make a widescale comeback.

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