The South Island start-up getting rid of plastic milk bottles

A South Island start-up is helping to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by milk bottles each year, by providing cafes and businesses with reusable milk kegs.

Founded in 2019, Christchurch-based Spout has developed a milk keg system similar to what bars use with beer. Since the company was launched, more than a million coffees have been made using Spout milk, leading to a reduction of over 10,000kg of CO2 emissions and saving around 80,000 milk bottles from going into waste streams.

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Nick Jackson, who co-founded Spout along with Jo Mohan and Luka Licul, says the idea for the business came to the three when they met at Venture Up, an accelerator programme run by Creative HQ, in Wellington in 2019. After starting out with the broad goal of reducing plastic waste, the trio spoke to around 100 local cafes in Wellington and found there was a desire to use fewer milk bottles but no real solution to the problem.

"We were very keen to try to solve [the problem] and do what we could to reduce the use of single-use plastic bottles," says Jackson, who has a background in mechanical engineering. The company now sources milk from two farms, in Canterbury and Otago, and delivers its kegs around Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown and Wanaka. As well as providing milk to cafes and hotels, they also service Otago Museum, the Lyttelton Port Company and a number of other companies including logistics and accounting firms.

Although traditional milk bottles can be recycled, meaning many people assume they are relatively eco-friendly, the reality is not quite so simple, says Jackson.

"New Zealand isn't particularly great at recycling," he says.

Much of what can technically be recycled ends up being sent to landfill as it is dirty or contaminated, he explains, and New Zealand also sends much of our waste overseas to be recycled, where there's no guarantee the job is being done properly.

"And if it's not disposed of properly it ends up in waterways and oceans, which isn't great for our marine life," says Jackson.

"And then even when you are recycling, producing new plastic and then the process of recycling is also energy-intensive."

Another advantage to using the system is that each keg needs to be used only eight times before the carbon impact of producing it is offset, with each keg being able to be used thousands of times during its lifespan.

The company offers a "farm-to-flat-white" service - dropping off full kegs and collecting empties, which are then cleaned and refilled - and recently delivered its 16,000th 10-litre keg, meaning roughly 80,000 2-litre milk bottles have been saved from entering waste streams.

And feedback from baristas using the milk to make coffee has also been positive, Jackson says. "It's a lot easier to foam and to stretch the milk, so they really enjoy using it. And their customers also just love the taste, which is really cool."

Another unforeseen benefit that baristas have reported is that using a tap system speeds up the coffee-making process, particularly during busy times of the day.

"One of the first comments we got when we started setting up in cafes was how much time baristas could save during the morning coffee rush just by being able to pour straight from the tap instead of having to go open a fridge and fiddle around with the little lids on the bottles and then dispose of the bottles at the end. It doesn't sound like a lot, but they did notice how much easier it made their workflow, which is really cool because that's not something we necessarily tried to do."

The next goal for the company is to keep growing and expanding around the country and "have as big of an impact as we can", saving even more milk bottles from the bin.

Article created in partnership with Contact Energy.