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As other countries catch on, bagged milk’s roots remain uniquely Canadian

BENJAMIN MACDONALD/The Globe and Mail

To mark Canada 150, Globe Style's Clearly Canadian series explores iconic examples of domestic design.

Bagged milk first made a splash in 1968, after it was test-marketed by DuPont and Guaranteed Pure Milk Co. in Montreal and Vancouver. The format offered less packaging waste, less breakage and reduced shipping weight (and therefore costs) when recycling numbers for traditional glass and coated paperboard containers were low. The new packaging also coincided with the switch from imperial to metric; resizing adjustments were more easily made in the bag format than upright gable-top cartons.

According to a 1997 report from the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, which surveyed the impact of bagged milk on the market, the sale of plastic pouches makes up more than 83 per cent of the Canadian market, and has managed to cut the solid waste generated by the industry by 20 per cent (even while sales of milk are up 22 per cent). Regardless of packaging, the milk is still pasteurized (the safety process to kill harmful bacteria has been mandatory in Canada since 1991) and homogenized.

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The bag fits best in the original plain, purpose-designed reusable plastic pitcher that has been ubiquitous since the 1970s. The generic curved style with an integrated handle remains constant, regardless of its many manufacturers – not that designers haven't tried to improve its aesthetics: There are stainless steel versions and, in the Prototype section of this year's Interior Design Show, emerging Ottawa product firm Warehouse proposed several jazzed-up versions of the bag holder with a prismatic faceted angled jug and others with a rubberized finish.

Cutting the bag open with scissors is its own special skill – too small a hole and the bag is likely to sag over and spill; too large and it pours too much too fast. Enter the Snippit, that magnetized doodad ubiquitous on Canadian refrigerators since the first Trudeau held our highest political office. The safety box cutter/paperclip hybrid was invented by Canadian John Ostrovsky in 1978 and still costs less than a cup of coffee. Ostrovsky had a nightmare that his then-infant son Kevin (who now runs company operations) got hold of kitchen scissors left out after cutting milk and injured himself. Ostrovsky, a civil engineer, quit his job and went through several prototypes before settling on the curved key-shape with a built-in blade, clip and magnet, which he then patented.

Originally launched through K-Mart and Home Hardware, Ostrovsky's first retailer customers, the Snippit is still manufactured by his company, Tangibles, on a purpose-built machine at the family-run 50,000-square-foot extrusion and injection moulding plant in Etobicoke, Ont. Millions of the blades have been sold around the world and now inspire hacks and other uses. The Snippit enjoys unexpected popularity among those who fish as a tool for efficiently cutting fishing line.

Although parts of Mexico and some regional dairies in the U.S. offer bagged milk, Canada's 1.33-litre bags (sold in three-packs totalling four litres) have frequently made the country a curious object of international fascination – and a butt of jokes. Nonetheless, England adopted the practice when Waitrose began selling bagged milk in 2008 (Sainsbury's also made the switch in 2010). The U.K.'s industrial designers haven't yet got their jug and cutter designs quite right, however, so who's laughing now?

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