Comparing the quirks of Canadian culture to those of the American lifestyle feels a little bit like the intro of a Twilight Zone episode, where the protagonist steps into a place that is almost exactly like the life they knew before, with some strange details missing or changed that makes them think that something is off. It is the land of socialized medicine. Vinegar is offered as a condiment for your french fries. Black widow sightings are so rare they are featured as local news. If you ask for “American cheese” at a Subway in Canada, the employee will give a quizzical look and then offer “white cheese” instead. Grocery stores will inform you that they “do not accept cheques,” which will leave you momentarily confused unless you are familiar with French. Smarties candies are similar to M&Ms, and the ones that you’re thinking of are called “Rockets” in Canada.
One of the most disorienting moments for an American in Canada is the first time you lay your eyes on a plastic bag of milk. Some Americans are vaguely familiar with this concept, but many are often unprepared for that moment. It is a floppy, thin plastic bag containing four liter bags of milk in all of your favorite varieties—whole, 2%, chocolate, skim, and so on. You look at the rest of the dairy aisle to see that there are no familiar plastic jugs in sight. When you pick up a bag it flops over, just as expected but it is a foreign sensation nonetheless.
You grab the nearest Canadian by the shirt to try to make sense of the situation, and a flurry of questions comes to mind.
First order of business: how do you get the milk out of bag?
What you will find in most Canadian milk drinking homes is an empty pitcher. One of the liter milk bags – more technically known as a milk bladder – is placed in the pitcher. You may need to slam the pitcher on the counter to get the milk bag all the way in, but it will fit. To open the bag, simply take a pair of scissors and snip a corner off. There is finesse to cutting the bag optimally. If the cut is too small, the milk stream acquires too much velocity and you must aim to get your milk into the cup. If the cut is too large, it is difficult to control how much milk comes out, leading to overflowing the cup when you are finished pouring. Once you figure out the perfect cut, bagged milk behaves much like any pitcher of liquid. When the bag is finished, simply throw it out and cut open a fresh bag.
But doesn’t that leave the milk open?
Yes. But as it turns out nothing really happens to an open container of milk so long as it is refrigerated and you drink it within the week. The benefit of having the milk divided into four liter bags is that you only need to finish a liter of milk within a week. The rest of the liters remain unopened, which can extend the shelf life a bit if you need.
How are you supposed to store it? It flops over.
The fact that the plastic moves with the fluidity of the milk can actually make storage a bit easier. With thick plastic jugs, you need space to fit the dimensions of the jug. The sturdy plastic does not fit kindly into spaces that are not specifically designated for milk. With bagged milk, you can lay it down flat and fit it into a drawer that Americans might assign to veggies and fruits. The bag might not even take up the whole drawer, so you can squeeze in a few other items too. If needed, the liter bags can be separated and organized however best suits your fridge. The bags can conform to crevices if there are only holes of free space in your fridge. An open pitcher of milk is much smaller than a gallon jug of milk, so it is much easier to find space for it in a packed refrigerator.
Why doesn’t the U.S. have bagged milk?
Prior to cartons and bags, milk was delivered to your doorstep in reusable glass bottles. In 1971, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau began converting Canada to the metric system, meaning that all liquids would need to be measured and sold in liters. At this point, four different options for milk storage were offered: glass bottles, plastic jugs, cartons, and plastic bladders. The reusable glass bottles fell out of favor fairly quickly. They were very difficult to transport due to weight and the glass often broke or fractured during deliveries. The milk carton made its debut in 1915, and became the prefered method of milk storage by the ‘50s. The modern plastic jug had humble beginnings in 1963, when Walter Zaleski invented the jug to account for the carton’s inability to hold large quantities of milk. Conglomerate company DuPont is said to have introduced the thin polyethylene milk bladders in 1967.
The simple design of these rectangular bladders allowed DuPont to get a leg up on the other manufacturers.When Canada converted to the metric system, the manufacturers of the milk jug and the milk carton needed to make tremendous design adjustments in order to adhere to the new measurements. The bags on the other hand only needed minor adjustments to utilize the metric system. Not only that, but the thin plastic bladders produced much less waste than the glass bottles and the thick plastic jugs. Thus, the bags reigned supreme in Ontario, Québec and the Maritimes, and does to this day.
The Canadian milk bags use up to 75% less plastic than our milk jugs. In regards to environmental sustainability, used milk bags can be collected and repurposed to weave into durable sleeping mats for homeless citizens or used in crisis situations. Because milk bags are lighter and can fit easier in refrigerators, fad of storing milk in plastic bags is spreading globally. This storage method has already been adopted in India, South Africa, and Colombia, and is starting to gain traction in the U.K. as a part of greenwise initiatives. There have even been some movements in Nebraska, as over 170 schools have opted out of milk cartons in exchange for the “cost-saving and recyclable” personal milk bags. Internet users from the U.S. have been known to poke fun at Canadians for their milk bags, but it seems that our northern neighbors are a little ahead of the game when it comes to reducing plastic waste and upcycling their garbage. Milk bags may be disarming at first sight, but right now it seems that their benefits outweigh our current milk storage practices.