U.S. supermarket chain Wegmans switches to molded pulp egg cartons made from 100% recycled paper, but says its research showed little environmental difference between PS and paper cartons

ROCHESTER, New York , April 19, 2010 (press release) – The next time you reach for eggs in the dairy case, you may notice that the cartons holding Wegmans brand eggs have changed. A number of customers had suggested switching to a molded paper/pulp egg carton, so the sustainability team at Wegmans Food Markets took a closer look at the environmental impacts of different kinds of egg cartons. While the team did end up recommending molded paper/pulp egg cartons – which arrived in all Wegmans stores this month – their research showed that getting to the best answer isn’t always simple.

“When we’re deciding on a path to follow,” says Sustainability Coordinator Jason Wadsworth, “we want to understand the environmental pros and cons of each option, from creating the product to getting it to the consumer, to disposing of whatever is left, such as packaging. Our team used a process called Life Cycle Assessment, a scientific approach that measures the environmental footprint by tracking what goes into the product, including raw materials, energy and transportation costs, water, and so on.” Wadsworth’s report on the details of how each option stacked up appears on the Sustainability page of Wegmans.com.

The team compared three common materials used for egg cartons – polystyrene (better known by its brand name, Styrofoam); molded paper/pulp; and clear plastic (#1 PET), a recyclable form of plastic. First, the team looked at how well each type protected eggs from cracking or breaking. That’s important, says Wadsworth, because “Ninety-five percent of a product’s environmental footprint is in the raw materials used to create it – in this case, the water, fertilizer and energy that goes into making the chicken feed, and the housing that protects chickens from the weather.” Those resources are wasted if the egg breaks. Previous experience with the clear plastic carton had shown that it didn’t protect the eggs as well as paper or foam, so the clear plastic option was not considered.

Next the team scored paper and foam in terms of raw materials used to make them. The paper cartons, made from 100% recycled paper, had the edge over the foam, made from petroleum. But when it came to scoring them in terms of energy and water, the foam cartons had the edge, since they required less energy and water during their manufacture than the paper cartons.

Finally, disposal: there wasn’t a clear winner, because neither foam nor paper degrades in a landfill, and paper cartons are not accepted for recycling in most markets served by Wegmans stores. (However, Wadsworth points out, backyard composters can recycle the paper cartons by tearing them into small pieces and adding them to the compost pile).

The Life Cycle Assessment showed that environmentally there’s little difference between foam and paper cartons. The sustainability team ultimately recommended the molded paper/pulp carton for its 100% recycled content and favorable feedback from Wegmans’ Online Opinion Panel members and other customers. The team also found a supplier willing to tint the paper cartons so customers could easily spot the size that they want – green for large, blue for extra large, and gray for jumbo eggs.

The story behind the switch to a different egg carton illustrates how the sustainability team looks at decisions that involve using the planet’s resources. “We take that responsibility seriously,” says Wadsworth, “because making a difference is one of our company’s core values. Every smart step that we and our customers can take to reduce, reuse and recycle moves us in the right direction.”

Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. is a 75-store supermarket chain with stores in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland. The family-owned company, founded in 1916, is recognized as an industry leader and innovator. Wegmans has been named one of the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ by FORTUNE magazine for thirteen consecutive years. In 2010, Wegmans ranked #3 on the list.

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