Sustainable Microgreens Packaging

Final report for FNE22-029

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,137.00
Projected End Date: 03/01/2023
Grant Recipient: Brooklyn Grange
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Benjamin Flanner
Brooklyn Grange
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Project Information


Farmers and other food producers rely on packaging to keep produce fresh, safe, and attractive to customers at market. Single-use plastic packaging meets those needs for microgreens, and is also lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to use. The clamshells currently used at Brooklyn Grange are made of thermoformed PET. Despite the many benefits, it’s critical that we move away from these kinds of disposable containers because they have a heavy environmental toll. During a year-long research project funded by SARE, farmers at Brooklyn Grange researched, tested, and evaluated alternative packaging solutions on the market. The end goals were to switch to a better option than the PET clamshell, and rollout marketing and educational materials about the switch. Unfortunately, we were not able to make a change in good conscience because none of the options would be a true improvement over our current packaging.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of the Sustainable Microgreens Packaging project were threefold:

  1. STUDY: First, to identify the most environmentally-friendly microgreens packaging options on the market, and second, to test their efficacy. The anticipated result of this was to find a high-performing and low impact container that we could use to market our microgreens. We were looking for a true “green” alternative to plastic clamshells. 
  2. DEPLOY: Switch our microgreens packaging over to the best, most sustainable packaging option. The anticipated outcome of this project was to cease all single-use plastic clamshell use in our microgreens operation, replacing thermoform PET with a more sustainable alternative. This switch would have benefited the environment, and also helped our farm get closer to achieving our goals as a green business.
  3. EDUCATE: Market our microgreens with labels/imagery that would tell the story of the new packaging, and share our findings with other farmers who are eager to operate more sustainably.

The immediate intent of this project was to reduce single-use plastics at Brooklyn Grange, and our hope remains that our findings will lead to more widespread development and adoption of sustainable packaging throughout the microgreens industry at large.



Farmers and other food producers rely on packaging to keep produce fresh, safe, and attractive to customers at market. Single-use plastic packaging meets those needs for microgreens, and is also lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to use. Despite the many benefits, it’s critical that we move away from these kinds of disposable containers because they have a heavy environmental toll. Manufacturing petrochemical-based packaging produces air and water pollution and involves being shipped over great distances. Ultimately, the packaging ends up in landfills, or in the ocean where they will release chemicals and microplastics into the surrounding environment for decades and centuries. 

The clamshells currently used at Brooklyn Grange are made of thermoformed PET (#1 plastic). Technically PET is recyclable, but in NYC only half of recyclable products are diverted from trash.[1] It is also more difficult to recycle rectangular clamshells than other products like water and soda bottles, so not all recycling streams accept clamshells.[2] Furthermore, recycling has an overrated reputation for environmental benefit: it’s polluting and energy intensive, and should be a last resort for recapturing valuable materials, not our best effort at reducing environmental harm. 

From cradle to grave, PET is bad for the environment, and as a green business and sustainable farm, it is imperative that we invest time and resources into a more sustainable packaging option for our microgreens. With Northeast SARE's support, Brooklyn Grange undertook a year-long project to investigate alternative packaging options, test them, and received feedback from consumers and a retail customer.


[1] Recycling Facts.

[2] The difficulty of recycling clamshells (thermoform PET)



During the research phase of this project, we assessed packaging options on the market according to these considerations:

  • Unit cost 
  • Operational feasibility at Brooklyn Grange
  • Start of life: material origins and components 
  • End of life: compostability/recyclability, what happens to the product after use

After connecting with experts in the field, considerable online searching and reaching out to our farming community, we chose five options that best fit our criteria and represented several different product types (see the descriptions and Attachment 1 in the Research section). 

There were definitely more sustainable packaging options available for other types of food products, such as dry goods, dairy, and fruits. Microgreens and delicate leafy greens are challenging: they’re delicate, the shelf life is short, and humidity needs to be more tightly controlled than other products. Too dry, and harvested microgreens won’t last a day. Too wet, and they mold within 5 days. Our impression of the market in 2022 is that the clamshells and pouches we tried are at the tailend of product development. If any of the few existing options become successful, it’s conceivable that they would be quickly adopted by many farmers and green-facing companies. However, as we found in our field testing and follow up research, it’s possible that none of the current options are suitable to become a true alternative to PET plastic clamshells. 


We ultimately ordered samples of four products from our research to field test. We originally proposed buying 50 of each product, but wound up with 15-200 of each product, depending on the minimum order quantities and sampler packs available for each product. We tested each packaging option in three ways:

  1. On-farm test in our walk-in cooler to observe shelf life.
  2. Off-site test with our Technical Advisors at The Meat Hook, a local grocer who distributes our microgreens. The packaging had to hold up to normal transport conditions, shelf storage and then meet the standards of the produce buyer there as the stand-in consumer.
  3. Direct-to-consumer at our farmers market, to receive feedback directly from some of our regulars.

Through all three of these testing phases, the Greenhouse Manager and Crew took note of how the different products worked out in normal packing operations. 



Once all the data from Phase 2 was collected, our team considered the results and conducted some follow-up research on the end-of-life options for each product. Our hope had been to pick the best option, design a new label to highlight the sustainability features, and then roll it out to all of our microgreens customers. We would have been on the way to diverting more than 20,000 clamshells from the recycling and landfill waste streams. We would have had actionable results to share with our farming community.

Unfortunately, we had to conclude that none of the available alternatives were actually better than the PET clamshells we currently use. The composting waste stream is underdeveloped and oftentimes the environmental cost of production is too high. Completing Phase 3 would have been disingenuous, and ultimately harmful to the farm’s operations. The packaging question is a tough nut to crack! The results sections below explain why.



The final step of this project was to share our findings with our consumers and fellow farmers. Upon completing the January progress report, we drafted a shorter version and posted on our Brooklyn Grange blog and shared it with Growing for Market. 

Most farmers are unwilling or unable to take the risk and switch to a new package because plastic clamshells are the industry standard.  This question of more sustainable packaging has been in the background of our operations for years, and our team was eager to finally be able to put the necessary time and care into answering it. We’re confident that once a good alternative is found, developed, and proven, more farmers will gladly make the switch.

Description of farm operation:

Founded in 2010, Brooklyn Grange is an urban farming business, operating on three large rooftops in New York City. In total, we have roughly 4 acres of green roof under cultivation, and we produce a wide variety of market crops including hardy and leafy greens, nightshades, alliums, cucurbits, and brassicas. Our farm grows around 100,000 pounds of produce which is distributed through our sliding scale CSA, farmers markets, and to New Yorkers at no cost through support from our Food Equity Funding Partners. Our team vacillates between seven full-time, year-round farmers, and 30 farmers total in the peak growing season (May-October). This project focuses on our microgreens operation, which is housed in a 4800 square foot greenhouse at the largest farm in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The greenhouse team produces and packages thousands of two-ounce clamshells per year, which are distributed to grocery outlets including Fresh Direct, The Meat Hook, and other small retailers. When we started the microgreens program in 2014, we trialed many different crops, growing methods, and packaging methods. The program now operates year-round and is managed by Maya Kutz, Greenhouse Manager, and Liz Dowd, Director of Farming Operations. Together with Calliope Bosen, the Produce Sales Manager, these three researched, tested, and hoped to roll out a new packaging option in an effort to eliminate single-use plastics in our microgreens operation.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Fabrizio Sandoval - Technical Advisor (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Materials and Methods

The preliminary research aimed to identify the most environmentally-friendly microgreens packaging options on the market. The research was conducted online, over the phone with manufacturers and wholesalers, and by reaching out to others in the farming community. The various types of packaging were recorded in a spreadsheet, where our team also logged more information about each product, including material composition, and means of disposal. We wanted to list place of origin as well, but except for Grounded, an Australia-based company, the supply chain for highly manufactured products like this is guarded information. 

We ultimately decided on five products: two clear clamshells made of bioplastics, a cardboard clamshell, a clear bioplastic pouch, and a Kraft paper pouch. As it turned out, the two clear clamshells were actually the same product – although branded differently, they shipped from the same manufacturer. The first attachment lists the clamshells we currently use, PET TS-24s sourced from Imperial Dade, and the four products we ultimately tested. 

Once we received all the products, we ran three trials: an internal test to monitor shelf life, samples sent to The Meat Hook for a retailer’s perspective, and samples distributed to some regular customers at a farmer’s market. Each packaging option was tested with two types of produce: pea shoots, very hardy for a microgreen, and purple-stemmed kohlrabi, a key and delicate ingredient in Brooklyn Grange’s signature rainbow mix. At the farmers market, our market manager sent free samples of pea shoots and kohlrabi home with five customers for each packaging option, in exchange for filling out an online survey sent to them the following week. Both our contact at The Meat Hook, Fabrizio “Breezy” Sandoval, and the market customers were asked to rate each package on appearance, success at keeping the micros uncrushed, shelflife, and whether they could easily perceive how to recycle/compost it. 

We scored the products across several categories in order to consider information from our preliminary research and the field testing. See Attachment 2.

Attachment 1

Attachment 2

Research results and discussion:

The overall scores for all products came out surprisingly close, though the results are more distinctive within each category. For example, the Ready Cycle cardboard clamshells are clear winners in the environmental considerations. It’s made from renewable feedstock, it’s both recyclable and compostable at a small scale, and the manufacturing process is less polluting than PET or PLA plastics. It’s also completely non-viable because there are cutouts for air circulation, which dry out delicate greens like microgreens or salad mixes. It would be a tough conversion even with a different version of the product because the clamshells need to be constructed by the packer, which could add a few hours to harvest time. 

The best performance winner was easily the Good Natured bioplastic clamshells. There is room for design improvements because Good Natured clamshells don’t stack or pack efficiently, but they are completely interchangeable with TS-24s from a customer’s perspective. We considered switching to the Good Natured clamshells, but ultimately decided it would be disingenuous because PLA from wheat straw fiber is not proven to be more sustainable than PET from petrochemicals for the following reasons:

  • Manufacturing PLA is energy intensive and polluting, on similar levels to PET
  • While the feedstock for PLA could be considered renewable, the growing wheat at scale is not an environmentally neutral farm product
  • PLA is not recyclable, but the Good Natured clamshells look recyclable. That is confusing for consumers. 
  • PLA is compostable, yes, but only at an industrial composting facility with mechanized chippers and higher internal temperatures. Most consumers don’t have access to composting facilities like that.

Many of these concerns could be resolved. The manufacturing process could improve, the feedstock could be sourced responsibly, compost access could increase, and of course consumer education is ongoing and an important goal of this project. However, until these changes are underway, we could not in good conscience promote using PLA clamshells as an improvement over PET clamshells.

The Grounded clear pouches do breakdown within a few months in a small compost (tested by our Greenhouse Manager in their own backyard bin), which is much more accessible and understandable for consumers who are willing to go the extra mile to buy a sustainable product. However, there are a few significant barriers for using Grounded: 

  • Pouches are less sturdy than clamshells, and don’t hold up to bulk packing or trucking as well. We thought it was worth trying, but our biggest customers buy in cases of 20 units, and quantities of Grounded packages would not pack well together. 
  • Grounded requires a 10,000 unit minimum order, which is too large an investment for small farms and poses storing challenges.
  • We ran into some issues with customer service, which is a risky place to start for an important supplier.
  • The company is based in Australia, so there is a known long shipping distance and room for delays along the supply chain.

Finally, the Biotre Kraft paper pouch runs into some of the issues as the Grounded pouch, with two additional issues. First, consumers are used to buying greens in see-through packaging so they can assess freshness. If there isn’t at least a window, products are unlikely to sell. (It might still be doable at markets, as open bins and packing into the pouches, but we find pre-packing a significantly better approach for shelf life.) Second, 40% of the material composition is still PET plastic and is not easy to separate from the recyclable/compostable Kraft components.

Research conclusions:

We started this project hopeful that to finally find an answer to the packaging question. Unfortunately, it seems to be one of those tricky problems that hasn’t been solved yet! We were not able to find a truly sustainable packaging alternative to recyclable PET clamshells. If an product is developed, it will probably be fiber based clamshell and home compostable. Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) on different material bases for recyclable and compostable packaging options (PET, PLA, Kraft, cardboard) show that manufacturing any kind of packaging on scale results in significant pollution and energy consumption. Plant pulp papers and cardboards win out slightly because they are made of renewable materials and are sometimes less harmful as a feedstock. Furthermore, they have much more success in breaking down in compost systems of any scale, which means consumers are much more likely to have access and adopt the appropriate disposal methods.

Through our trials and research, a few specific challenges came into focus. 

Barriers for Small Farms: Scale and Labor

Brooklyn Grange uses upwards of 20,000 clamshells per year for our biggest microgreens outlet, but some of the minimum order quantities were five times that. Ordering such a large minimum quantity would exceed our storage capacity, and be too big of a marketing risk even with grant funding. There was also an option that seemed very promising, a pulp base with thin plastic cover from TIPA Corp, but it requires the separate purchase of expensive specialized packing equipment. It might be a good option for a midsize farm. Two of the smaller companies we looked at, Ready Cycle (tryed) and Sun Sugar Farms (considered), might come out with a Kraft or cardboard clamshell without vents, which would be suitable for microgreens. However this style of product is a little less convenient to use and store. The Ready Cycle clamshells would need to be around half the price ($0.20/clam) to compensate for the increased labor. 

Popular Demand, Low Transparency

The consumers, retailers, and producers we talked to all wanted an alternative to the PET clamshell. Unfortunately, the products available to meet this demand are, so far, are either not actually improvements or are not suitable for small farm production. There is also a lot of intentionally misleading terminology that makes it difficult for producers or consumers to know what they’re buying, such as the difference between biodegradable and compostable, or industrial compost certification vs home composting. A prime example is plastic-lined fiber packaging products. Without close examination, these packages look like biodegradable pulp, they will leave plastic residue in compost systems. Even if the liner is bioplastic, it won’t necessarily degrade in a home compost system. 

Underdeveloped Disposal Infrastructure

Good Natured was the best product of the four tested products because it worked best in our operation. However, it looks like a recyclable clamshell. If we made that switch, we imagine that very few would actually wind up in an industrial composting facility – fewer than would get recycled, and only half of recyclables are correctly sorted in NYC. This learning was a big reason why we could not switch to a PLA compostable clamshell in good faith: the outcome would be worse than what we’re using now.

Reusing, recycling, and composting must be part of any meaningful conversation about sustainable packaging. We focused primarily on compostable products for a few reasons: compared to recycling, composting…

  • Requires very little energy input
  • Can be done locally or regionally and at any scale
  • Does not produce harmful emissions to water or air
  • Paired with food scrap organics composting, helps sequester carbon
  • Produces an enormously beneficial soil amendment; it’s an upcycle

Furthermore, compostable packaging options are usually made from renewable materials. Their manufacturing is not good for the environment, but there is more potential for improvement and harm reduction than with petrochemical based plastics.

All that said, composting systems are underdeveloped in the USA. Most people here need to overcome a knowledge deficit, and then take on some serious inconvenience or cost to access a composting system. There are efforts to increase composting programs in many communities across the country (read more) but it’s still a fairly niche avenue. 

A fiber-based product that’s both recyclable and compostable is probably the best option given the current waste systems. As the market stands though, we feel like our hands are tied. 

Change the Process, not the Package

Our hope with this project was to substitute PET clamshells with a better package. The benefit would be minimal impact on our operations, which would be ideal for financial viability for both our farm, and as a recommendation for other farms. 

Farms with different operations or that are just starting out may have success trying out multiuse containers (which LCAs backup as better than single use plastics by a huge margin) or live microgreens. 



Paper pulp > bioplastics for compost 

Using organic fertilizers in hydroponics and recirculating culture. Greenhouse Product News. (2021, February 11). Retrieved from  


BPI website is a great resource for finding certified products and defining terms. Kind of like OMRI as the standard-making institution

Find BPI-Certified Products. 


LCA Plastic Packaging and Alternatives in US and Canada

Franklin Associates (April 2018).”Life cycle impacts of plastic packaging compared to substitutes in the United States and Canada. Theoretical substitution analysis.” (pdf)


Models show that PLA and cardboard manufacturing are similarly polluting and energy intensive to PET plastic.

Rezvani Ghomi, E.; Khosravi, F.; Saedi Ardahaei, A.; Dai, Y.; Neisiany, R.E.; Foroughi, F.;Wu, M.; Das, O.; Ramakrishna, S. The Life Cycle Assessment for Polylactic Acid (PLA) to Make It a Low-Carbon Material. Polymers 2021, 13, 1854.


PLA is carbon intensive, and a very small percentage of the overall plastic production. Makes the point that there are advantages of industrial composting systems for PLA plastic and other organics: less sensitive to impurities, can handle dairy and meat, can handle more bioplastics.

Iván Darío López Gómez, Alejandro Serna Escobar, The dilemma of plastic bags and their substitutes: A review on LCA studies, Sustainable Production and Consumption, 2022, 

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:
  1. While collecting consumer data, Calliope Bosen, Produce Distribution Manager at Brooklyn Grange, spoke to many market goers about the different types of packaging we were trialing
  2. Fact sheet to break down different types of compost certifications: Consumers face confusing and conflicting information about compostable products. The mixed messaging makes it hard to tell when compostable packaging or single-use items are a good choice, or how to actually get the compostable thing to a compost system. This fact sheet summarizes industry terms, and some certifications you might see on compostable goods. Last updated March 2023.
  3. Wrote a blog post summarizing this project and our findings in conjunction with Victoria Yan, Marketing & Communications Manager at Brooklyn Grange. 
  4. Victoria developed at R&D webpage, which includes this research project as part of our ongoing efforts to reduce environmental impact and work in community with our neighbors.
  5. In progress: Sent blog post to the publication Growing for Market, in conversation about writing an article for publication

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

While we didn’t change our packaging, we still learned a lot through this project! A few highlights:

  • All manufacturing has an environmental and social impact. That doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad, but a product’s full life cycle, from cradle to gate, should be considered when discussing sustainability. 
  • There are many formal definitions of compostable. Some say that a material is compostable if it’s biodegradable and produces compost. The ASTM standard says that if a plastic gets small enough, fast enough, without toxic residue, that bioplastic counts as compostable. We’re curious to learn more about how this definition overlaps with microplastics pollution. 
  • A lot of people are excited about sustainable packaging! Amongst our customer base, there is a high awareness of single-use plastics and desire to use something different. 
  • This is a tough nut to crack. Retailers of green-branded packaging are not always transparent.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$29,137.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
Project outcomes:

Outcome is disappointing! There isn't a good alternative for microgreens (and probably leafy greens more generally) for small farms. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas of further study needed:

  • Live micros have much better success in the Ready Cycle packaging than pre-cut. Here's a picture of a small trial after 1 week comparing Ready Cycle, which is partially enclosed, to berry baskets, completely open, in the fridge.  
    • we have avoided live harvesting because we reuse the soil on the farm, and because it's easier to ensure quality control when we harvest ourselves. But micros packaging like this is quite common in parts of Europe. How does it work in Europe? What barriers are there to adopting this approach in the US?
  • Would a fiber based product like Ready Cycle or Sun Sugar Farms work if they didn't have vent holes? 
photo compares four crops packed live into Ready Cycle cardboard clamshells and berry baskets after 1 week. The crops in the Ready Cycle clamshells look much more vibrant and healthy.
Ready Cycle vs Berry Baskets, 1 week in fridge. Crops: radish, sunflower, kohlrabi, pea shoots

Photo showing closeup of live kohlrabi in a Ready Cycle clam and a berry basket after 1 week in the fridge. The kohlrabi in Ready Cycle looks fresh, maybe a little moist. The berry basket micros are wilted and faded.


Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.