The Agony of Plastic (Packaging): A Smallhold History

Smallhold Friend

The Agony of Plastic (Packaging): A Smallhold History

One of the most recognizable parts of Smallhold’s business is our packaging – specifically our compostable cardboard clamshells. Most people don’t know this now, but for a long time Andrew and I wouldn’t sell individually packaged mushroom products – ie: clamshell products. For years we only sold bulk 5 pound cases to restaurants and grocery stores. 

Over time, however, we began to admit to ourselves that getting people to understand the value proposition of our specialty mushrooms in places like large grocery stores was just very tough. We needed some way to communicate to them at the point of sale, explaining the mushroom and highlighting its culinary possibilities. 

So we decided to investigate sustainable packaging. Here I’d like to stop and interject a pointed comment: 

There is no such thing as sustainable packaging for at scale mushroom farms. 

You can make a home-compostable, carbon-postitive, handcrafted, retail pack and still be net negative in your sustainability promise to the world. Produce packaging, for all its convenience, is completely unnecessary outside the bounds of modern grocery retail economics and logistics. 

Think about the two main goals of any produce package: 

  1. Extend the shelf life of your product
  2. Convince people to buy your product (in a very overstimulating environment)

So how would we play in this world? 

Andrew and I decided if we couldn’t beat em’ we had to join em. On our terms. The journey to produce our first clamshell took us 1.5 years. The criteria for our packs was this (in order):

  1. Impact (social and environmental)
  2. Cost
  3. Product visibility

    Since launching our retail packs in 2021 up until this year (2023), we have offset the usage of 60,000 pounds of plastic as compared to conventional mushroom/produce packaging. We've also used 100% FSC certified or upcycled cardboard (nearly 45%) within our packaging. 

    Here’s the evolution of our packs, for reference:


    1. Paper bag, 2. Farmer's market punnet, 3. 5 lb case, 4. Subtly stickered clamshells without a plastic window, 5. Brightly stickered clamshell.

    As we were sorting through the piles of plastic produce packaging, we realized that there was nothing sustainable we could use for mushrooms. But we found one small company named Sambraillo that was attempting to mass-produce some compostable strawberry cartons. We bought a pallet and started trying them out.

    Fast forward a couple of years and we’ve customized it a bit, gotten rid of the plastic sticker (now it’s printed with plant-based, compostable dyes) and added in a plastic window. Unfortunately, the mushrooms kept drying out without it. You can compost the whole package except that piece, which is nice. 

     To summarize, our current packaging is:

    • Made from 100% recyclable and home-compostable materials
    • Contains 45% post-consumer recycled material, with the rest coming from SFI-certified trees
    • Uses vegetable-based inks

    Each year, we continue to evolve our packaging by testing out new materials and learning new methods. It doesn't stop here!

    One big note here: While we are of course protective of our business and our proprietary information, we made a conscious decision not to pursue any trademarking or exclusivity on our sustainable packaging. The thought process went (and still goes): 

    We want people to be able to use these clamshells. If we have the brand impact on the mushroom section that we want, getting people to Eat More Mushrooms, everyone should be able to hop on ASAP. The industry is set up to manufacture, brand, ship and sell literal billions of units of plastic packs. We’re not going to change that by squabbling over who gets the most brand points for sustainability. If your mission is actually to get people to Eat More Mushrooms, it’s going to take a lot of mushroom farmers to make that happen.