Reusable shopping bags have become a staple at any grocery store with a conscience. It’s easy to take the idea for granted, as an obvious solution to unnecessary plastic and paper waste. But every reusable item had to get its start somewhere, and right now, reusable egg cartons may be getting theirs thanks to Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, a family-led farm based in New Hampshire that’s one of the country’s largest egg distributors.
“As a leading organic brand, we took a look at our footprint and asked ourselves how we could do better,” says Jesse Laflamme, the company’s third-generation CEO. Inspired largely by reusable shopping bags, Laflamme and his team were thinking of new ways to use sustainable packing material when they kept coming back to the same idea: “The best packaging is no packaging.” Since eggs with no packaging would result in a yolky disaster, Pete and Gerry’s went for the next best option: cartons customers could purchase once and bring back to their local store every time they needed new eggs.
The cartons sell for $2.99. After that, you bring them back to the store and load them up with eggs directly from the large egg containers they’re shipped in. The stores offer a small discount on a dozen eggs if you put them in a container, like when you bring your own mug to a coffee shop.
For six weeks now, Pete and Gerry’s has been running a pilot program for its reusable egg cartons across four Hanover Co-op Food Stores in New Hampshire and Vermont. Laflamme says the company has sold around 500 of the reusable cartons , and customers have given positive reviews. “They’re loving the idea that [the cartons are] robust, and they can cut down on their waste,” says Laflamme.
Retailers are happy. Customers with the reusable cartons are buying just as many of Pete and Gerry’s eggs as they were before.
The reusable cartons are made of BPA-free molded, recycled plastic. They’re sturdier than the cartons the farm otherwise sells its eggs in, which are made of thin plastic from recycled water and soda bottles.
Meanwhile, people in the U.S. are eating more and more eggs. In the 1940s, the average person in the U.S. ate about 404 eggs per year. After a significant dip, that number has climbed back up to 279 eggs per person per year—meaning a single person could cut back on more than 20 egg cartons annually if they opt for a reusable alternative.
A Certified B Corporation, Pete and Gerry’s has been able to maintain its family farm status in the face of large-scale industrial farming. Around when Laflamme was in college, his parents had to compete with a nearby farm boasting five million hens. “It was a struggle,” Laflamme says. “When I came back, the farm was on the edge of whether it was going to be viable or not. We switched to organic, and that literally saved our family farm.”
Not only did going organic save the farm by offering an alternative to industrial farms, it helped it grow. “Rather than become a factory farm, we chose to partner with other small family farms,” says Laflamme. Pete and Gerry’s now has a network of about 130 family farms from which it purchases eggs, selling them under Pete and Gerry’s branding in about 60% of retailers across all 50 U.S. states.
The company also sells free range but non-organic eggs under the brand Nellie’s Free Range Eggs for a lower price. In March, the PETA Foundation filed a class-action lawsuit against Pete and Gerry’s and Nellie’s after capturing footage showing thousands of hens living in a confined, indoor space at one of Nellie’s suppliers. The company has filed a motion to dismiss, and Laflamme says that a PETA operative took that video footage during a public tour of the farm and edited it selectively to obscure outdoor space available to those hens.
Pete and Gerry’s has a number of massive retail customers, including Kroger’s, Safeway, Publix, and Whole Foods. Laflamme says the company will start sharing the reusable egg carton concept with these retailers soon in hopes that they’ll implement their own pilots. He’ll just have to talk logistics with them first. The cartons alone will require a separate display case from the eggs in stores, and getting all of that shipped across the country will take time. Laflamme sees Whole Foods as a particularly suitable market for the reusable cartons, which are “more on trend” for the chain’s typical, sustainability-conscious shopper.
“It’s been better received that we would have imagined,” Laflamme says of the pilot overall. “The aim is to excite people about the idea of your reusable shopping bag—bring back the reusable egg carton.”
Correction: We’ve updated this story with the correct name of the stores where the cartons are being piloted.