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Driver John Ramos — who is a distance racer in his spare time — sprints from his milk truck to the Tartell doorstep and back in a flash. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

John Ramos is a streak across the lawn before the sun comes up, a runner dashing through the dark with a jug of milk in each hand. 

His record is 75 houses in one hour. There’s really only one way to accomplish this: Ramos, who has delivered milk for Royal Crest Dairy for 22 years, leaps out of his truck and runs to the milk boxes at every doorstep along his route. 

On a good day, Ramos can get in 5 miles of running. The marathoner tracks it with his Garmin watch, considering it a bonus to the miles he logs after his six-hour delivery shift ends at about 6 a.m. 

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The milk-delivery business is going strong along the Front Range, where the three remaining companies that bring fresh milk from local dairies to doorsteps report a steady uptick in customers. 

Even as milk consumption is declining, the companies have boosted business. That’s partly because in the age of Amazon, people are seeking out the convenience of grocery delivery and local products. But here’s another big reason, and one that is catching on with other kinds of companies worldwide — reusing a milk container week after week cuts down on plastic waste and customers want that option.

Lynn Tartell exits her South Denver home next to her family’s Royal Crest milk delivery box. Even as her family grows and consumes less dairy, delivery is a regular part of their routine. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Royal Crest uses a high-density, polyethylene plastic jug that gets 100 to 150 uses before it heads to the recycle bin. Products from Longmont Dairy and Morning Fresh Dairy — Colorado’s two other home-delivery companies — come in glass bottles that are used up to 20 or 30 times before the glass is recycled. 

“What’s awesome is that when it breaks, it can be recycled into more glass,” said Pinky Hughes with Morning Fresh, founded in 1894. “It’s not going to sit in a landfill.” 

The “milkman” has been reusing containers for more than 100 years, and now it looks as if the business model will spread to other products. Think laundry detergent. Shampoo. Mouthwash. Anything now sold in plastic jugs at the grocery store. 

The prospect was a hot topic earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where several of the world’s largest consumer-product companies announced a project called “Loop.” A customer would have a Loop bin on their doorstep, where they would place empty containers of everything from Tide laundry detergent to shampoo to ice cream. A driver would pick up the containers for washing and refilling. 

The project is in the early phases, but big-name brands including Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and PepsiCo are part of the collaboration. Another company, called Common Good, invites customers to visit “refill stations” (there are a couple in Colorado) to refill their bottles of soap and household cleaners instead of sending them off to a recycling center to become another plastic bottle. 

Colorado dairies that have been delivering to customers for decades believe they could offer some advice on the business model. Hughes, whose job at Morning Fresh is to look for new business opportunities, has already called Procter & Gamble. A company official told her they were working on it, but it was still “far down the road,” Hughes recalled. 

She’s also reaching out to local companies, including the Golden Poppy Herbal Apothecary in Fort Collins, which sells essential oils and soaps with an emphasis on zero waste. In the future, the dairy in Bellvue, just north of Fort Collins, could offer a multitude of home-delivered products in reusable containers.

“It’s very apparent to us that people are sick of throwing things away,” said Hughes, noting that 40% of customers reported on a recent survey that they order milk because it comes in reusable glass. 

Driver John Ramos tosses an empty bottle perfectly into a crate inside his Royal Crest truck. The service delivers staples beyond dairy, including bread and eggs. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Morning Fresh has 14 drivers who deliver to 16,000 homes mainly in Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley.  

Longmont Dairy, which has 30 route drivers and 25,000 customers, added more products in reusable bottles after customer requests. The dairy now sells tea and cold-brew coffee in glass. 

“The hardest parts are how to get the containers back and how to clean them,” said third-generation Longmont Dairy owner Katie Herrmann. “I hope that businesses can be innovative and figure out ways to reuse packaging. It’s really going to take some brainstorming.”

Other environmental factors to consider when reducing plastic waste: the water used to clean the containers and the fuel burned to make the deliveries. In Longmont, the glass bottles are sent through a bottle-washing machine that recirculates water. 

Herrmann maintains that milk delivery, though, is more efficient than having all those customers drive to a grocery store on their own to pick up milk. Because the routes are so densely packed, one driver can hit 150 customers in a night, without traveling more than about 10 miles.

Royal Crest, which has nearly 80 drivers, would not say how many customers it has getting home delivery, but said the number has increased steadily over the years. Similar to other milk delivery companies, Royal Crest also delivers a growing list of food products — bread, yogurt, butter, eggs, bagels and cookie dough. The company started selling lactose-free milk this summer. 

Driver John Ramos — who is a distance racer in his spare time — sprints from his milk truck to the Tartell doorstep and back in a flash. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Royal Crest, founded in 1927, converted to polyethylene plastic jugs in 1965. Empty jugs returned to the plant go through a high-temperature wash and a scanner that looks for defects before they are refilled with milk. Royal Crest has received kudos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state for the innovative bottles, dairy spokeswoman Jann Rigg said. 

“I think it makes a big difference for why we get to keep our customers for so long,” she said. 

For Lynn Tartell, who has been getting Royal Crest delivered for 20 years, it’s a matter of always having milk in her house for her four kids, and in particular her teenage son who pounds cereal.  “It’s the one consistent grocery I always have in the house,” she said. “Everything else fluctuates. If I can’t get to the grocery store, you can at least get bread and eggs and cheese.” 

Tartell, who lives in Denver’s Bonnie Brae neighborhood, is the kind of person who fills up two recycle bins each week. Her milk jugs, though, are rinsed out and placed right back on the porch. 

Once a week, her milkman — the speedy Ramos — replaces them with fresh milk. 

A dozen eggs sit on top of the ice-packed milk bottles in John Ramos’s Royal Crest delivery truck. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...