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Why Packaging Matters at Square Roots

Square Roots | 06.11.21

At Square Roots we use plastic to package our produce. Frequently our community voices a negative reaction to this fact. We hear you loud and clear! Plastic cannot be the long-term solution for Square Roots. But frustratingly, packaging is a complex issue and the answer isn’t as obvious as we’d all like it to be. So we want to talk about it openly, set some context, and share the research.

Square Roots farmer holding up a package of basil inside an indoor, vertical farm of basil

Delicious herbs grown in our local farm in Brooklyn, NY.

Indoor farming and food waste.

The UN estimates that by 2050 we will need to produce 60% more food to feed a world with almost 10 billion people. At the same time, the US currently wastes 40% of the food it grows each year. This food often ends up in landfills, emitting methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 28-34 times that of CO2.

So, if we’re going to feed our near-future world with a more sustainable system, tackling the huge food waste problem is key.

As an indoor farming company, we approach this in a variety of ways—including using controlled climate technology to precisely grow only the amount of food our customers actually want, and building farms in the center of cities to dramatically reduce food miles from seed-to-store, practically eliminating food waste along our supply chain. Packaging our produce is also part of this equation.

Why plastic?

Plastic packaging provides a barrier to oxygen and moisture, which keeps produce fresher for longer. Additionally, fresh produce travels safely and is well protected on store shelves with the help of that same packaging. In shelf life testing, we’ve found our produce lasts 7x longer in plastic packaging versus without. In short, we use packaging to maximize quality and minimize food waste at the same time.

Square Roots packaged herbs, including parsley, dill, cilantro, and basil

Square Roots’ range of fresh, local herbs in 100% recycled and 100% recyclable packaging.

Today, all of our packaging is made from 100% recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Going one step further, the majority of our products (including our recently launched herbs) utilize packaging that is also 100% recycled—made from post-industrial material, reusing plastic already in circulation (RPET). Once used, all Square Roots packaging can be placed right back in the recycling process, diverting plastic from landfills and oceans and giving this material new life through reuse.

But just because Square Roots packaging is 100% recyclable, that doesn’t mean it’s 100% recycled! In fact, the current US recycling rate for PET is only 31%. Why is it so low?

Primarily it’s because most cities don’t have effective recycling programs. Thankfully, this situation is getting better. Technology like AI-powered automated plastics sorting can help. And forward-thinking investors have established funds specifically to catalyze recycling innovation at scale.

Square Roots' Transparency Timeline

With the Square Roots Transparency Timeline, simply scan the QR code to get the full story of where your food comes from and how to recycle.

But it’s also about consumers being aware and taking action. So, to make recycling of Square Roots packaging easier, we’ve now added recycling information to our Transparency Timeline.

With a simple scan of a QR code on any Square Roots package, everyone can see the complete story of how their food was grown. From today, consumers can also see how to recycle the packaging their greens came in. It’s a small feature, but hopefully makes it a bit easier for consumers to be part of the wider change needed to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our global food system.

Alternative packaging materials.

So, we primarily use 100% recycled, 100% recyclable plastic for packaging. But we don’t think that’s good enough if we want to truly reduce our environmental impact in the long run. Here at Square Roots we have continually asked: If we want to extend shelf life and minimize food waste with packaging, but do not want to use plastic, what are the alternatives?

Frustratingly, most of the options have their issues.

Compostables seem like a great idea, as they ultimately degrade into nutrient-rich organic matter. But the most widely available compostable options largely rely on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to repel water and keep food fresh. These chemicals can contaminate soil and water and are linked to worrying health conditions.

Encouragingly, some fast-casual restaurant leaders now use PFAS-free compostable containers. But even if this becomes standard, this packaging solution is really optimized for keeping a meal in good shape during a Doordash delivery—not for keeping fresh produce at top quality for two or more weeks in a refrigerator.

Paper is another area we’ve researched for potential solutions. We’ve learned about emerging paper options coated with films made from vegetable materials that provide comparable levels of impermeability to plastic. But that technology, while really exciting, is in its infancy for food safety testing and accessible pricing—certainly for smaller companies like ours.

Of course, we remain committed to continuing our research to identify packaging alternatives. But until we find a food-safe alternative that both extends shelf life and minimizes food waste, we believe we’re making the most responsible, fact-based choice today by using RPET.

Let’s keep the conversation honest and open.

Transparency has always been key to who we are as a company. Transparency is listed in our core values. It’s baked into our farm design (there’s a reason we install floor-to-ceiling windows!). And hopefully it comes through in communications like this blog post. People want to know where their food comes from and, increasingly, what is its impact on the planet. Packaging is part of that conversation, and we want that conversation to be equally transparent.

Square Roots values and a view inside of Square Roots' indoor, vertical farms

At Square Roots, transparency is a core value and is baked into all of our actions -- from communications to our farm design.

If you have any thoughts, comments, or ideas, please e-mail us here. Meanwhile, keep an eye on this blog as we’ll continue posting updates as we explore new solutions for packaging alternatives and other sustainability initiatives.

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