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Confused About Reuse, Refill, and the Milkman Model? Allow Me to Help!

Reuse vs refill vs milkman model - what’s the difference? A sustainability professional explains.

Daniel Velez
Daniel Velez
3 min read
Confused About Reuse, Refill, and the Milkman Model? Allow Me to Help!

There is a growing effort from entrepreneurs, non-profits, and big corporations to evolve from using single-use plastic packages to reusable ones. The catalyst for this change can be simplified by these two realizations:

  1. There is a big mountain of trash in the ocean and I’m contributing to it.
  2. Doesn’t it make sense to reuse this cup instead of chucking it?

As a result, people have gravitated towards reuse, refill, and the milkman model…but what exactly do these terms mean? If I bring my reusable water bottle to work, is that considered reuse or refill? Reuse is a catch-all term for reuse, refill, and the milkman model…but there are nuances to each model.

The key difference between single-use and reuse is the system. Single-use operates in a vacuum. Whether somebody recycles, litters, or trashes a single-use bottle…single-use still works as intended.

Reuse operates as a system; it doesn’t work if people don’t return their bottles or if companies don’t clean them. Without the system, there is no reuse.

I define each term in the context of packaging.

Reuse

When a package is used again for the same purpose for different consumers. Reuse is usually free and the company owns the container.

Refill

When a company-approved package is used again for the same purpose and same consumer. This is the oldest method of acquiring beverages in human history.

Milkman Model

The cycle of packages being delivered, reclaimed, reprocessed, and reused for the same function—also known as packaging-as-a-service.

People often intuitively understand the milkman model. During Growly’s discovery process, as I was explaining to people what we, at the time, were trying to do with Growly, they didn’t get it. That was, until I said, “It’s like the milkman of craft beer,” and boom, people instantly understood the concept.

While I take issue with the fact that the term “milkman” incites a mental image of a white man, it’s not worth changing the term to be more inclusive of race or gender. People intuitively understand the concept with the term and it’s not worth retraining the public’s brain to call it the “milk person model,” which will lead to confusion. Sustainability is complicated enough.


The original version of the milkman model was designed for dairies to package their product. In the late 19th  to early 20th century, there were few packaging companies and container costs were prohibitive to sell as single-use. Especially for quickly perishable goods like milk. Dairy companies either bottled their own milk or partnered with other dairies to share the cost of managing bottles. Essentially, the milkman model existed as a practical way to package and sell products.

Today, we can operate the milkman model 2.0, where the package is a product and a statement: we are done with planet-harming single-use plastic.

At Growly Delivers, we gave customers two packaging options for their craft beer: the classic glass growler (which kept beer fresh for 3 days), or the high-tech uKeg growler (which kept beer fresh for 2 weeks and looks kickass). Most customers chose to pay a premium to rent the uKeg growler, or pay more for premium packaging, proving the point that the milkman model 2.0 works.

BYOB (Bring/Buy Your Own Bag/Container)

Buying or bringing your own bag/bottle/package to be filled.

Recycle

To break down packages to their molecular components and use them again in the manufacturing process with either some or no virgin material.

Hopefully, the definitions of these terms have clarified things and cleared any confusion about reuse!

Reuse

Daniel Velez Twitter

Daniel is building the future of reuse. His last venture, Growly Delivers, delivered local beer in returnable high-tech growlers. What will he do next?

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