The Milk Man’s Lesson

The Milk Man’s Lesson

One of my most enduring memories from childhood was the regular appearance of the milk man’s truck which delivered dairy products to our home circa 1964 in Staten Island, New York. Bill the milk man delivered milk in durable glass bottles which we dutifully placed on our porch when empty. Those bottles were reused hundreds of times. We knew the man’s name and we knew where the milk came from.

My water heater is on its last leg, which after thirty years is pretty darn good. When I talked to a plumber about replacing it, they assured me my new one would not last thirty years. This struck me as odd since given advances in manufacturing, they could surely make one that lasts even longer. “Not a good economic model,” he told me. In other words, making things less durable has become good business.

I thought of Bill the milk man and my aging water heater this week when I had Tom Szaky, the founder of TerraCycle, on my podcast The Way Forward. Tom dropped out of Princeton to start his company that has become a global leader in recycling innovation. We discussed the state of waste across the globe, the hard truth that only about 4-7% of what we put in our blue boxes gets recycled, and the role waste plays in climate change (and the destruction of nature).

One of the most exciting efforts of TerraCycle is something they call Loop which is reimagining packaging. The idea is to manufacture durable packages that are owned by the manufacturer and are returned and reused. The idea is to make reusing as easy as throwing something away. While in its early stages, it shows promise for a new way of thinking. Well maybe an old way of thinking.

You see this week’s blog isn’t about recycling, it’s about how sometimes the best way to reimagine things is to remember a time when things were better. Once upon a time we bought a lot less stuff we didn’t need and fixed things instead of buying new ones. Once upon a time people with political differences didn’t finger point and blame but sat down to work out compromises. Once upon a time indigenous people who didn’t have the luxury of moving across the planet discovered that taking care of the environment ensured a good life going forward. Once upon a time products were made to last, not to break as soon as the warranty ends. Once upon a time most businesses had a name – we bought goods from real people we knew, like Milkman Bill.

I’m all for progress and innovation of course. Some things are a lot better than they used to be. We are more inclusive although diversity has a long way yet to go, and we’re able to connect with people around the globe in an instant. But I think we ought to look backward a little more. Sometimes the best way to go forward is to look back.

Tom’s podcast with me won’t be available until January, but here is his hierarchy for those of us who want to be eco waste champions. Buy less crap! Reuse or fix things. Buy used stuff. Buy durable stuff. Buy things made from recycled stuff. Buy recyclable stuff. Big hint: uncoated paper and aluminum are the best in terms of actually being recycled economically.

Here’s to looking back a little more to find a way forward.


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored nine best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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