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Science & Environment

Britain's War On Plastic Has An Unexpected Beneficiary: The Milkman

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Britain, a desire to clean up the world's oceans has breathed new life into a once-dying trade. The war on plastic has led more people to switch from plastic to glass milk bottles. That is good news for the traditional British milkman. As the BBC's Sam Alwyine-Mosely reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE WHIRRING)

SAM ALWYINE-MOSELY, BYLINE: The whir of an old electric British milk car as it whizzes past row homes to his next stop in suburban East London. It's sort of a long golf buggy. There are no doors. At the back, glass milk bottles jangle...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BOTTLES JANGLING)

ALWYINE-MOSELY: ...In black plastic crates. On the side of the roof in faded green paint is written, new customers always welcome. The driver, out on his daily round, is Steve Hayden. He's been a milkman for 33 years.

STEVE HAYDEN: One normally gets up and has breakfast at 1:00 in the morning. And then I'll get ready, get to work about sort of half past 2 or 3:00, and then starting a round about 4.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Hayden says he delivers around 600 bottles of milk a day, but when he started in the 1970s, it was a lot more.

HAYDEN: When I came in, it was still pretty strong then. But then I saw the decline.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BOTTLES JANGLING)

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Like in the U.S., the glass milk bottle used to be dominant here. In 1975, 94 percent of British milk arrived with the clink of glass bottles on the doorstep. But by 2016, that figure was just 3 percent. Customers were enticed by cheap milk in plastic containers from supermarkets. It seemed the traditional milk round was doomed.

HAYDEN: Obviously, they cut out rounds. And so, of course, then people left and - or people retired or just went on to another job.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: But these days, Hayden is busy. He says sales are picking up. His employer, Parker Dairies, says it's had nearly a thousand new customers this year. They're selling more than 4,000 extra glass pints of milk a week. And once they're empty, every one of those bottles are picked up from the doorstep by milkmen like Steve.

HAYDEN: And then I put them in the crates, and then they all go back and get washed. And then the cows fill them up again. Real recycling. They lost about 20 journeys. So it's not like plastic - use once, throw away. They're actually, at least, 20 journeys.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: The British government says it's setting aside more than $80 million to tackle plastic waste in the world's oceans. Hayden says that's already had a real impact on his work.

HAYDEN: With the war on plastic, as they say, it's just took off. It really has taken off on a big scale.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: A recent BBC TV series presented by Sir David Attenborough called "Blue Planet II" has helped turn public opinion against plastic waste. It featured a soaring soundtrack, beautiful pictures of wildlife and footage of plastic garbage despoiling almost every corner of the world's oceans.

Back at the milk depot, Parker Dairies manager Paul Lough says he's delighted by the public's response.

PAUL LOUGH: This year alone, we've seen growth like I've never seen in 31 years. David Attenborough is a god to us. Just going back to what we used to do, we used to buy our potatoes loose and our carrots loose, and their milk was delivered in a glass bottle by the milkman. And people were going, well, why did we stop doing that? That seemed to work.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Whether glass milk bottles really are better for the environment isn't clear. The heavier glass bottles require more fuel for transport and more energy for sterilization. But it's the public awareness of plastic pollution that's driving change.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BOTTLES JANGLING)

ALWYINE-MOSELY: And that's great news for Steve Hayden.

HAYDEN: You don't want to get too excited, but also, you are excited because, I mean, it keeps us going.

ALWYINE-MOSELY: Parker Dairies say, for the first time in 25 years, they're looking to add a new milk round to keep up with demand. For NPR News, I'm Sam Alwyine-Mosely in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.