The grocery co-op where I shop offers local, organic cream from three different farms, which use three different types of recyclable containers (all roughly the same volume):

  • Mini version of clear plastic milk jug: enter image description here
  • Wax-coated cardboard carton (no screw-type spout):
  • White plastic bottle with plastic shrink-wrap sleeve/label: enter image description here

Assuming the contents are roughly the same, which type of container has the lowest environmental impact?

Two considerations:

  • It often takes me up to two weeks to go through a liter of cream, meaning that if there's no obvious best choice, whichever one keeps the cream from spoiling longest would be the winner.
  • All three types of containers are recyclable where I live.
  • 1
    A factor that will differ by location is whether or not each container is recyclable in your local area. Jan 14, 2017 at 4:12
  • @HighlyIrregular good point - I added this info.
    – LShaver
    Jan 14, 2017 at 4:46
  • @THelper, yes, that's what I meant, I updated the question. I'm also most interested in knowing, in general, which type of container is best.
    – LShaver
    Jan 14, 2017 at 15:27
  • Milk products in a transparent container may develop "off" flavors more quickly than equivalent products in an opaque container: foodsafety.foodscience.cornell.edu/sites/… May 30, 2019 at 17:36
  • I answered a similar question about cheese with "forget about the packaging, just eat less cheese". I suspect the same will apply here. sustainability.stackexchange.com/questions/9496/… dairy-free cream substitutes can be quite good (e.g. soya for pouring or coconut for whipping and cooking)
    – aucuparia
    Sep 25, 2019 at 8:41

2 Answers 2


When comparing similar products and packaging, a quick and practical rule is that the product with the highest content weight / packaging weight ratio has the lowest impact. But in practice it's much more complicated of course. Things to consider are:

  • The product itself usually has a larger environmental impact than its packaging, so not wasting any cream should be your first priority.
  • The production phase of a product often contributes the most to its total environmental impact, so how the packaging is produced matters more than how it is recycled (but the production of the cream matters even more).
  • People tend to consume or waste more if they buy in bulk.
  • The type of packaging that is the most simple to produce usually requires the least energy and is often also the simplest one to recycle.
  • Wax-coated paper and paper/plastic composites are difficult to recycle because it's hard to separate the materials.

The question is how this all will balance out for your situation. For the most accurate answer you'll need to do a life-cycle analysis of all 3 products, but that's a lot of work and is best done by a professional LCA-practitioner.

Based on the limited information available, I personally would select the first container (the large one) unless I could find evidence that the production of the cream on one of the organic farms goes beyond the requirements of the 'organic' label (e.g. solar panels, converting cow manure to biogas). And of course provided I will finish all cream before it spoils.

  • I couldn't find a picture that accurately represents the size of what I can buy, but all three containers are roughly the same size - would that affect your answer?
    – LShaver
    Jan 14, 2017 at 22:24
  • There is probably very little difference, so I'd go for the cream that tastes best ;-). But if I had to choose based on packaging I'd go for the most simple container, probably still the first one. If you are very sure the carton is really recycled and not thermally recycled (incinerated) which happens in many places, then I'd choose that one.
    – THelper
    Jan 15, 2017 at 7:01

if you are really interested in these types of issues specific to your own footprint (rather than in general for an average person with recycling services), you may want to just call up your local recycling facility. They may be able to tell you how these products are recycled, or they might offer tours so you can see it yourself.

There are many variables at play here, such as how clean the stream of recyclables that comes from your home ends up being when it reaches the plant and how they handle a less-tan optimal stream. In some places they will just throw a contaminated lot in the landfill, whereas in other places they will separate it by hand.

This can effect how best to recycle the containers. For example, the plastic container with shrink wrap might be best treated by removing the plastic wrap. Also, you can enquire how thoroughly rinsed the container needs to be according to the type of recycling that is happening.

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