Although it wasn't the first to do so, Chelsea, Mass., dairy H.P. Hood Inc. became a magnet for criticism last fall when it began using white-pigmented milk bottles.
Recyclers worried that marketing considerations would steamroll concerns about recycling.
``It's not a significant issue now,'' said Bruce Fortin, president of EnviroPlastics Corp. in Auburn, Mass. ``But if the market differentiation point becomes different colors, it will destroy the feed stream at the community level. The marketing trend could negatively impact the flow of cash back into the recycling infrastructure.''
But from Hood's standpoint, the switch to an opaque container made sense.
``Business has increased and unsolicited consumer response has been that the milk tastes better,'' said Peter Ross, vice president of manufacturing.
Ultraviolet light and sunlight, which penetrate natural-colored bottles, break down vitamins and affect the taste of milk, he said.
Hood was aware of 50 light-sensitivity studies. The firm commissioned a study at Cornell University, which found milk begins to lose vitamins as soon as it is exposed to light. In 24 hours of UV exposure or 30 minutes in sunlight, reduction in vitamin A was 50 percent; riboflavin, 12 percent; and vitamin C, 90 percent.
High density polyethylene is a commonly recycled plastic, collected in most communities with curbside recycling. In Massachusetts, 97 percent of the 351 towns with recycling programs accept natural, unpigmented HDPE, said Matthew Costello, executive director of E-Call Inc. in Boston, a nonprofit state recycling hotline.
However, unpigmented HDPE has about one-third more value to recyclers than pigmented bottles, Fortin said. In addition to the color contaminant, another concern is recycling the pigmented homopolymer bottle with pigmented copolymer containers.
``There's no way to control the flow or the mix in the stream and it affects the characteristics. It becomes a stiffer, more brittle plastic,'' he said.
One factor complicating the debate is some dairies don't agree with studies that say light hurts milk's taste and nutritional value.
Peter Anderson of RecycleWorlds Consulting in Madison, Wis., said synthetic vitamin A added to low-fat milk is light-sensitive, but natural vitamin A is not.
Riboflavin is sensitive to light, though not as much as vitamin A. He also rebutted the idea of loss of vitamin C in milk because milk is ``not a significant dietary resource of vitamin C.''
``There is disagreement on who says what,'' said Dorothy Suput, executive director of MassRecycle, the Massachusetts recycling coalition in Boston.
``The debate is that Hood says they need the Light Block bottle. Others don't agree. This could potentially affect towns and intermediary recyclers,'' she said.
Fortin claims Hood could use two unpigmented additives to solve the problem of light infiltration. The additives cost about the same as the white pigment.
``Based on the information available to us today, we can only conclude that the dairy's management team made the decision to change its package to gain some form of a marketing advantage,'' Fortin said.
One dairy's switch to nontraditional milk packaging may not disrupt the whole recycling industry, but Fortin was concerned enough to send letters to about 20 dairies in New England urging them not to follow suit.
One dairy that heeded the call was Garelick Farms Inc. of Franklin, Mass.
``We are aware of the pressure from recyclers on dairies and the trade to keep everyone in natural HDPE,'' said John Kellogg, vice president of marketing. ``We're taking the threat seriously.''
Garelick Farms wanted more shelf visibility for its products, and it considered an opaque bottle. But after consulting executives in the recycling industry, it developed a wraparound, low density PE label that can be recycled with the HDPE container. The company introduced the combination last month.
Garelick spent about two years developing its container. The firm consulted with the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and followed the group's design guidelines for recyclability.
``The recyclers have told us that our involvement has been completely out of the ordinary to approach them before making the container,'' Kellogg said. ``They were very excited about us working with them.''
When Hood became aware of the problem, it began working with the recycling community, associations, municipalities and state agencies, Ross said.
``There were two things to focus on—to help recycling through the creation of end products, and education,'' Ross said.
The markets the firm has identified are lumber, drainage pipes, detergent bottles and plastic parts and bags.
``The fact that it be 100 percent recyclable was a must,'' Ross said.