Don’t Reinvent the Milk Carton

25 Nov
US Patent 1,157,462

US Patent 1,157,462

One morning last week, as I poured the last bit of milk out of the carton and onto my raisin bran, I looked at the plastic spout poking out of the “roof” like a chimney and wondered to myself, “Who ever decided that this was an improvement on the original milk carton design?” I thought about how John R. Van Wormer’s ingenious idea to make a self-contained container – a single object that both held milk AND unfolded to give you a spout – somehow became “not good enough.” Why? Whoever thought that a carton needed a second spout, complete with three other small pieces of plastic that now, multiplied by a gazillion, take up space in landfills? What the heck was ever wrong with unfolding the spout?

I’ve thought about this for days. Literally. I’ve mentioned it to a couple of friends and/or colleagues. I’ve asked them if they know why this “improvement” came along? They don’t. And neither do I. But I’ve thought so much about what it represents that I’ve decided my new mantra is “Don’t reinvent the milk carton!” I even printed off a picture of the image shown here and gave it to my supervisor so that she could hang it on her office door. I’m bringing the message to the people.

But I bring this up on my “Library Hats” blog not so much because I feel like the research team that I’ve worked with the past year is engaging in such an act, but more because as my time as an informationist on the team winds down, I’ve begun to look back on the project and take note of some of the bigger (and maybe a few smaller) lessons that I’ve learned along the way. And one of these lessons does remind me of the milk carton mantra.

When we first approached the research team to discuss with them different ideas, options, projects, etc. that we thought an informationist could bring to their work, it initiated a terrific time of “big picture” thinking. Once we explained what an informationist is and what skills and/or services I could bring along with me to the team, we came up with all sorts of ideas for things to do. “It would be great if we could …” and “We’ve wanted to do …” were phrases that came up often. This was just what we wanted and we proceeded to write up several aims and a lengthy list of tasks and projects to undertake in order to accomplish them. These were all new things thought to improve the overall research project, not necessarily things to create extra work for the team. Work for the informationist, yes, but not more work for an overworked team.

That was our design, anyway.

As I prepared a report for tomorrow morning’s team meeting, updating everyone on the status of where I am related to the aims of the grant, I began to think about my milk carton metaphor and wondered if maybe we didn’t wreck a good design with the addition of me. Like the addition of that plastic spout to the perfectly perfect milk carton, throwing me on the top actually has created more work for everyone on the team. The projects that we thought about, particularly related to performing thorough reviews of the literature and examining information technology issues in research… these ideas were things that the team may well have wanted to work on, address, and delve into with an informationist on board, however I’m not sure we really considered how much of their time would be required to accomplish them. Like the milk carton, they were a single, self-contained unit that worked pretty well. Add me, the plastic spout, and now you’ve added the spout, the cap, and the little pull-tab plastic piece that you have to remove before you open the carton the first time. One thing becomes four. Better design? It’s debatable. 

I do think that I’ve provided some valuable tools for the team (and future teams) to use, i.e. the data dictionary, data request forms, and a growing catalog of relevant articles for their field of work. But writing a review article is another project. Writing a systematic review is, in its purest form, an entire research project in and to itself. Similarly, planning a conference or investigating big-picture issues like how research happens in teams… maybe these are terrific aims, just not necessarily aims for supplemental work. I think that this is something we need to consider in the future when drafting our proposals for these type of services. 

In a time when people, dollars, and all resources are stretched to the limit, we don’t need to be making extra work – or plastic waste – for ourselves.


14 Responses to “Don’t Reinvent the Milk Carton”

  1. Selden, Kellee L November 25, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

    But do you remember why the milk carton was replaced? I do. The cardboard would eventually breakdown after too many times of being pressed open and close. Plus the liquid would make the cardboard soggy and make the spout not so pristine and pointed. I know this to be true because I grew up with a brother that opened and closed the milk carton a dozen times an afternoon. He was a football player and ate/drank everything in sight. So while the milk carton has its benefits, from an environmental angle, the gallon jug is good too.
    Which brings me to the point, we invent new ways to do things or we take on new projects because we think they are good for the job, the department or our “customers”. The new jug is supposed to help us or our customers and make life better or easier. If these new ideas or projects are too time consuming or don’t benefit us or our customers we stop doing it and move on. Just like if the milk carton had been better than the jug, we would still be using them.
    In today’s age of librarians needing to market themselves, I would rather be the jug than the milk carton.

    My two cents –

    • salgore November 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

      Brothers wreak havoc on every good design. I’m pretty sure of that! 🙂

      Go with the jug, just don’t make our work be theirs. That’s the message I was giving to myself.

      Thanks for reading and for the comments.

  2. Janet Cowen November 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

    Dear Plastic Spout –
    I, for one, had great difficulty with the old design. Most of the time I couldn’t get the corners to push in, or the spout to open. I had to tear the darn thing open, resulting in the contents splashing everywhere. In this case, redesign was a good thing, despite the extra pieces – which I try to recycle.
    Yours truly, Container-Challenged

    • salgore November 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

      I still want to be a paper spout. 🙂

      Happy Thanksgiving!


  3. Ed Donnald November 26, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    Thought it was to keep air out and the milk fresher longer? 😉

    • salgore November 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm #


      Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Krystal Bullers November 26, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    In my (humble?) opinion, the addition of the plastic spout was one of the greatest inventions known to humankind! Prior to its invention, I used to spend hours in the dairy aisle debating whether to purchase the gallon jug or the cardboard half-carton. If I purchased the gallon jug, I would inevitably end up throwing out at least a quarter that I had not been able to use fast enough. The guilt over the waste and the addition of all that plastic to the landfill typically swayed me to purchasing the cardboard half-gallon. But the half-gallon milk absorbed all the flavors from the fridge and went bad at a much faster rate. I had devised a complicated system of sealing the top using clothespins which did seem to help a bit but made my morning cereal that much more complicated.

    When companies started adding the new cap, I declared “genius!” and I actually changed my grocery store habits to shop at stores that carried cartons with the new design. (It took awhile for it to catch on everywhere.)

    So while I do get your point, and it is a valid one that certainly applies to my own role as a liaison librarian to our College of Pharmacy, there is also something to be said for being that blend between convenience (the plastic jug) and efficiency (the tried-and-true carton).

    • salgore November 26, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

      Thanks, Krystal. Good point regarding convenience and efficiency. I’m also amazed at the number of peeps who’ve told me of their troubles with the old spout. I had no idea. 🙂

  5. Michelle November 26, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    If you’ve ever been to Costco take a look at their milk jugs. They are plastic square-ish
    Their new design makes them more efficient to ship and stack. Unfortunately they also have a bit of a learning curve for pouring. People used to regular jugs might end up with spilled milk they might cry over.
    We have 3 kids who are locust/human hybrids and eat everything in sight. So we do all of our weekly grocery shopping at Costco. I prefer the pouring ergonomics to the traditional milk jug. But I have gotten quite good at pouring from the square jug and the hassle of spilling has been lessened with time and the benefits of cheaper milk and shopping only at one store instead of two far outweigh .
    Instead of the plastic spout I think of you more as a square jug (hey you started the milk carton thoughts 😉 ). It sounds like your group is still used to pouring from a regular jug. An informationist within a team takes time for adjustment and it may take longer than we realize because we don’t automatically see the spilled milk on the counter to re-adjust our approach.

    • salgore November 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

      Ack! Hybrid locust/humanoids! 🙂

  6. Jenny R November 27, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    The old-shape peaked milk carton with the added-on side spout is an example of incremental steps leading to a weird cardboard chimera. It comes from hesitancy about REALLY reinventing things, looking right down to zero and even outside our own walls for solutions.
    Such as: the great Canadian milk bag. When I was growing up larger quantities of milk were sold in a trio of clear plastic bags rather than cartons or jugs. The bags fit into an easily handled reusable jug, and you’d snip the corners off for pouring. The unopened bags stayed fresh for a long time, and the empty bag was a small thing to throw away (this was before waxy cardboard could be recycled). The sturdy outer bags that held the trio were often saved for creative repurposing as school book covers and even impromptu rain boots.

    • salgore November 27, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

      Canadians are always ahead of us Yanks. No denying it.

  7. Robert August 7, 2021 at 2:09 pm #

    Very glad to find my grievance shared here in regard to the asinine, pointless “innovation” of plastic spouts on milk cartons, even though I was “triggered” by yet another complete mis-use of the word “mantra”; makes no sense in that context no matter how often it is misunderstood/misused by journalists, TV commentators, etc.—-Just a pet peeve. Down with gratuitous plastic crap!

    • salgore August 24, 2021 at 10:01 am #

      Mantra – a statement or slogan repeated frequently. 🙂 Yes, it also has a meaning related to Hindu and/or Buddhist meditation, but that’s not the only meaning and not the one I’m using here. No trigger warning needed. Thanks for reading and agreeing with my disdain for the plastic cap!

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