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Are Paper or Recycled Plastic Cartons Better for the Environment?

When deciding on new packaging for our organic eggs in 2012, we wanted to know which type of carton would reflect our B Corp values and dedication to the environment. So we worked with a third-party to conduct a life cycle anaylsis of the options available on the market. They found (what is now our) RPET plastic to be "vastly superior" to pulp. Read on to learn more.

Words by: Jesse Laflamme

A question that we get a lot usually goes like this: “I love your eggs and your commitment to animal welfare and the environment, but why do you use plastic egg cartons? Isn’t that worse for the environment?”

It’s an excellent question. We’ve all come to see plastic as bad. It’s derived from a non-renewable source (oil), it doesn’t decompose for a very long time, and these days, a lot of it is winding into the oceans (see Pacific Garbage Patch and Microbeads Pollution). So it’s understandable that it has a bad reputation.

On the other hand, the molded pulp cartons and the polystyrene foam cartons are not environmental home runs either, for many of the same reasons. So what’s a well-meaning person to do?

We wanted to know. So we worked with a third-party to conduct a life cycle anaylsis of the options available on the market.

We hired Quantis, a Canadian research company specializing in the environmental impact of products, to do a complete Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Egg Cartons for us in 2012.

Quantis looked across the raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and end of life/recycling aspects for RPET (our recycled PET clear package), virgin PET, Recycled Molded Pulp (RMP) and Polystyrene (commonly known as styrofoam). They scored that as a total Carbon/Climate Change footprint score based on all of those life stages. They also scored them on the basis of Human Health, Ecosystem Quality, and Resource Depletion measures.

We went with the most environmentally-friendly packaging based off real data.

The RPET carton that we use was determined to be superior, or vastly superior, to both the Molded Pulp and Polystyrene as a whole, and across all of the individual life stages, with the one exception – it has a slightly higher manufacturing impact than recycled pulp. It is worth noting that the worst option was typically the PET plastic made from virgin plastic. That’s because of the high amount of fossil fuels required both as energy and raw material in its production. This is what large 2-liter soda bottles are made from (so think about that the next time you’re considering buying soda). We take the recycled material from those containers to make our cartons. The tri-fold PET also has an important consumer benefit in that it provides the best protection for the eggs while allowing you to see the unbroken eggs without opening the carton in the store.

Once used, our cartons can then be placed right back in the recycling stream for another trip through the system. Paper pulp can also be recycled. Styrofoam all goes to the landfill to wait for the end of time.

While we wish we could sell our eggs in wooden boxes or wicker baskets that were re-used over and over, we feel as though we’ve arrived at the best possible solution we can for the time being. We ask that you always recycle your Pete and Gerry’s cartons after use and we can continue to keep our carbon footprint as low as possible. And thank you for bringing our eggs home in a reusable canvas bag as well.

COMMENTS

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Michele Lazerow

September 04, 2018

Where can I recycle these? My local place won’t accept them. I don’t feel good chucking these into landfills. So, I’m not going to purchase any more of your eggs until I hear from you that there’s a place I can recycle the cartons.

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1 Reply

[email protected]

September 04, 2018

Hi Michele, we're so sorry to hear that your local recycling facility will not accept #1 plastics. We're in the process of a "take back" program that will allow folks like you to mail their cartons back to us (free of charge) to be recycled. We'll certainly keep our consumers in the loop as we finalize the logistics, but it sounds like this program might be of use to you. We've also found that there can be some confusion out there regarding the type of plastic that our cartons are made from, and some recycling facilities that do accept #1 plastics simply don't realize that ours are in that category. If it helps, we would be more than happy to give your local recycling facility a call to see if this is the case. Feel free to send us an email at [email protected] if this sounds like it might be helpful.

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Nancy

September 02, 2018

Thanks... I almost stopped buying your eggs until I read the info on your packaging and went to your website to learn more. I like that you are reviewing new information as well.

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1 Reply

[email protected]

September 04, 2018

Thank you for your understanding and support, Nancy. We firmly believe in educating ourselves on this ever-changing issue whenever possible!

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Steve Hung

August 28, 2018

I’m not convinced that RPET is better. Of course if the plastic can be recycled forever, it would be a good thing. But, my understanding is that bad assumptions in LCA studies (life cycle assessment) can lead to misleading results. For example, did the study assume a 100% recycling rate? What if the actual rate were less? What if some percentage of the plastic waste winds up in landfills, but some in the ocean or tossed on the side of the road, etc.

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1 Reply

[email protected]

August 28, 2018

That's a really important point, Steve. We'd love to send you a copy of the study so that you can look further into any assumptions made and let us know how we could incorporate more possible outcomes into our thinking. We do want to point out that even though molded paper cartons are typically biodegradable, it's a common misconception that they'll biodegrade in an anaerobic landfill environment. So although we would never want to see our cartons end up in a landfill, if they do, they are unfortunately no worse off than paper cartons in that same landfill. We hope this information has helped clarify our decision, and please let us know if you'd like us to send that study your way!

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Maria Chang

August 15, 2018

Amazing! Just this morning while cooking breakfast I wondered "Why plastic, Pete and Gerry?" And 3 minutes later I had my answer! Thank you for staying connected with consumers and for caring about our environment. Great eggs, great packaging, never a broken egg 👌

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1 Reply

[email protected]

August 17, 2018

This is awesome, Maria. We're glad that you found the information to be helpful and easy to find, and thanks for the great feedback on our eggs and cartons alike!

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Carolyn Hardman

August 15, 2018

We can't recycle any plastic except #2 now, at least here in Maine. Our transfer station says it has to do with China refusing the plastics they used to buy from us. I agree with the superiority of the see-through plastic for supermarket eggs, but what effect does it have on your analysis of environmental impact now that the plastic cartons are going into the waste stream?

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1 Reply

[email protected]

August 15, 2018

Thanks for your comment, Carolyn. While there have certainly been some major recent changes when it comes to materials that can be exported to China, #1 plastics are still being recycled all over the country (and the world!), and we are working to ensure that our cartons are not ending up in the waste stream. We're in the very beginnings of starting a partnership with a "take back" program that will allow consumers to mail in their cartons free of charge so that they can be recycled. This will allow consumers all over the country - even those without access to a recycling center - to ensure that the cartons they purchase are being recycled and even upcycled in a closed-loop system. We'll have much more information in the coming months, but for now, we'd love to share some ideas for upcycling our cartons that our consumers have shared with us. At home, our cartons make great paint palettes, ornament storage, or even compartments for storing nails/screws, office supplies, or jewelry. Preschool programs and elementary schools sometimes use them for arts and crafts projects and storage. If you have a local farmer's market, egg farmers will sometimes repurpose our cartons (with the paper inserts removed, of course) to sell their own eggs. And finally, although they aren't biodegradable and shouldn't be planted directly into the ground, our cartons make fantastic mini windowsill greenhouses for seed starting. These are by no means long-term solutions, but we hope they'll help.

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Abilene Gray

August 14, 2018

Well the containers suck and I have stopped buying your eggs because they always always always break in those stupid containers!

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1 Reply

[email protected]

August 15, 2018

We're so sorry that you're not a big fan of our cartons, Abilene. We've found that they tend to protect the eggs better than molded paper pulp or Polystyrene, but we also know that cracked or broken eggs can happen now and then. We'd be more than happy to replace any cartons that you've been dissatisfied with if you don't mind sending us an email at [email protected]

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Margit

July 30, 2018

Why did you decide not to use recycled molded pulp, if that had the lowest impact? I've been so glad to have access to free range organic eggs in my local supermarket, thanks to you guys, and I appreciate your explanations but am not clear on this part.

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1 Reply

[email protected]

July 31, 2018

That's a great question, Margit! Ultimately, we decided that reusing the plastic that's already in circulation rather than letting it end up in landfills was the most responsible thing to do. It also came down to carton design and ease of use - we love that folks are able to flip the carton over (without worrying about the eggs jostling around, thanks to the tri-fold design) to check for cracked eggs before buying. Plus, the design and material tends to protect the eggs a bit better than others. We also love being able to showcase our farm families right on the carton, which we wouldn't be able to do as easily with paper pulp. We put a lot of thought and research into the choice, and we've been pleased with the outcome and positive feedback from consumers, but we're always open to change and improvement! We hope this explanation helps, and please don't hesitate to reach out any time with questions. Thank you for the support!

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LeAnne

July 26, 2018

I recently bought a carton of eggs which says good until july 28th. How long will they last past that date?

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1 Reply

[email protected]

July 27, 2018

Hi LeAnne, thanks for the question. The date on our cartons is typically a "use by" date, so we can't recommend that you consume our eggs beyond that date, as we can't guarantee their freshness. However, there's a clever trick that will give you a pretty good idea of how fresh expired eggs really are. If you fill a bowl with water and gently place the eggs in the water, you should be able to see if the eggs float or sink. If they float, you're better off tossing them; that's the sign of an older egg. If they sink, that's a pretty good indication that they're still fresh. We hope this helps!

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