How to Properly Reuse Egg Cartons

Egg cartons are almost never OK to reuse, but that doesn't mean they're garbage. Here are things you can do with them and things you should avoid.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Ana Hotaling

A lot of people ask me how to properly reuse egg cartons. I was reminded on this recently when I returned home to find a plastic bag hanging from the knob of my front door. Alarm bells sounded in my head: It wasn’t a post-office delivery, and I wasn’t expecting anything. Cautioning the kids to stay back, I carefully approached and unhooked the bag. Inside were about a dozen colorful egg cartons, neatly packed for our reuse.

Some generous soul had gone to a lot of trouble to save these cartons and drive them out to our farm. As a vigilant recycler and composter, I very much appreciated the kindly gesture. And I promptly threw the entire contents into the compost bin.

Few members of the egg-consuming public understand that, once used, an egg carton should not be reused and should be discarded. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, egg cartons are considered one-time-use packaging, similar to foam meat trays and plastic wrap. Reusing this type of packaging can cause cross-contamination with whatever foods they next contain. This is especially true with farm-fresh eggs, which are not pasteurized, often remain unwashed to preserve their natural bloom and can become contaminated with Salmonella before their shells even develop. The bacteria on and within eggs can pass into a paper-pulp egg carton and, from there, onto the next set of eggs placed inside.

Aside from health factors, egg cartons are also subject to state laws. The Michigan Egg Law Act, for instance, requires that all egg cartons be labeled with the name and address of the egg farmer, the egg size, the last date of sale for the eggs and the USDA’s safe handling label. And that’s the minimum. Furthermore, false or misleading labeling is prohibited. Egg cartons from supermarkets are usually billboards for egg producers. Covering all the print and designs on each carton would be time consuming and ultimately not worth the effort, especially not when a brand-new carton costs around 50 cents. Egg-packing laws probably differ by state, so be sure to contact your state’s agriculture department to learn what applies to you.

What To Do

Personalized Egg Cartons: Your customers probably won’t know that egg cartons cannot be reused. They might bring you a stack of cartons—some not necessarily yours—pleased that they’re being environmentally friendly. Smile, thank them, and by all means don’t lecture them about USDA egg-carton regulations (unless they’re your siblings or lifelong buddies). You can ask whether they would like these cartons to be designated as their cartons, for their specific use only. Most customers like the idea of having designated egg cartons. Use a permanent marker right there to mark the carton with the customer’s name. The person will probably be so excited about going green with the personalized carton as to request an on-the-spot refill.

Compost Fill: Paper-pulp egg cartons are 100 percent compostable as brown/dry matter. You can put the cartons directly into your compost bin or heap, or take a few moments to tear, shred or otherwise render them into smaller pieces. Please note that polystyrene (styrofoam) egg cartons are not compostable and should be discarded.

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Seed Starters: Their compostable nature and tidy dividers make paper-fiber egg cartons ideal for starting seeds. Poke a couple of small holes into the bottom of each egg cup, then fill 3/4 of each cup with potting soil. Plant your choice of seeds, and keep the egg carton watered and in a sunny, safe spot. When your seedlings are ready for transplanting, cut the egg cups apart, then place the seedling, egg cup and all, in your prepared garden bed.

What Not To Do

Unfortunately, many potential uses for old egg cartons are just bad ideas. Some of them are below.

  • Christmas-ornament organizers
  • Jewelry holders for earrings, rings, cuff links and charms
  • Desk organizers for paper clips, rubber bands and so on
  • Sewing organizers for needles, thread and buttons
  • Loose-coin sorters

Most importantly, never donate them to schools, preschools and adult-care centers for use in arts and crafts. Young children and the elderly are especially susceptible to salmonella and should not handle used egg cartons. This threat is so serious that the Israel Health Ministry banned the donation of them at nursery schools, kindergartens and elementary schools.  Consider donating brand-new, clean cartons for their artistic enjoyment instead.

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