Plastic Containers Catch on in New Produce Applications

Plastic Containers Catch on in New Produce Applications

In 2020, while stay-at-home orders were in place across the US due to the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores remained open as “essential” businesses, and consumers prepared more meals at home due to restaurant closures. Increases in home cooking led to more grocery purchases, including of fruits and vegetables (although sales of shelf-stable and frozen items increased more rapidly) – and helped to mitigate a sharp drop in produce demand in the foodservice sector.

As a result, overall fresh produce packaging sales fell in 2020, while clamshells and plastic containers – which are more commonly used in the consumer fresh produce market – saw strong growth, in large part due to surging consumer demand for ready-to-eat (RTE) fruits and vegetables, the leading application for produce plastic containers. Additionally:

  • Shoppers increasingly opted for prepackaged produce in rigid plastic containers, as these fruits and vegetables were perceived as more sanitary compared to loose items handled by more individuals.
  • Prepackaged produce options also appealed to consumers looking to shorten grocery store trip times.
  • Prepackaged fruits and vegetables further benefited from the rise in online grocery orders and curbside pickup, as they typically feature fixed weights and prices and are more amenable to online shopping than loose produce.

Though grocery sales and foodservice activity are expected to return to normal levels as the pandemic recedes, the fresh produce plastic container market is expected to see strong long-term growth, increasing 5.0% annually to $1.6 billion in 2024. A new Freedonia Group analysis identifies the key trends driving growth in this dynamic segment of the mature produce packaging industry.

Clamshells & Other Plastic Containers Continue to Supplant Bags & Pouches in Produce Aisle

The main driver of sales growth in the produce plastic container market will continue to be the replacement of commodity bags and pillow pouches with plastic containers in produce applications due to plastic’s superior protective and display properties, especially with RTE fruits and vegetables such as grapes, onions, and tomatoes.

Produce brands are seeking to boost market value gains with upscale salad offerings in more attractive, value-added packaging, including clamshells and two-piece plastic containers. Unit sales of tubs, cups, and bowls, which are already widely employed with fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, will benefit from their increasing use for packaging salads with dressings or other separate components.

Rising Sales of Ready-to-Eat Salad Will Be a Key Growth Driver

Produce plastic container sales will also be driven by increases in ready-to-eat salad production, as RTE salads often employ clamshells and two-piece plastic containers due to their transparency and ability to boost shelf appeal in pouch- and bag-heavy salad cold cases in stores.

Containers for salads have followed the salads themselves in terms of upscaling. Early on, packaged salads tended to be fairly mundane salads dominated by iceberg lettuces, with carrots, red cabbage, and sometimes other vegetables as accent ingredients. As the salad offerings have become more ambitious, so too have their containers, with many plastic container types – including those specifically designed for salads, with compartments for crouton and dressing packets or features designed to make them more similar to serving bowls – registering growth considerably faster than the overall average.

Growing Popularity of Pre-Cut Fruit Will Boost Sales

The rising popularity of ready-to-eat fresh fruit – due to its convenience and portion control benefits – will boost demand for plastic containers in a range of applications, especially for sliced apples, as well as for items that are more challenging to prepare, such as pineapples, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Because prepared fruits lack the natural protective barrier of their rinds, they often require packaging with similarly high protective properties as berries (e.g., clamshells, tubs, cups).

Additionally, robust growth in citrus and grape applications will be driven by rising adoption of rigid plastic containers among premium brands aiming to differentiate their products from their competitors by providing consumers with a rigid alternative to bags and pouches in these applications.

Nevertheless, berries will remain the leading fruit application for plastic containers; though market maturity will prevent faster growth, a favorable forecast for berry production as well as a lack of packaging alternative with suitable protection will support gains.

Sustainability Remains a Priority for Premium, Organic, & Health-Focused Brands

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a greater focus on cleanliness and sanitation for food packaging, sustainability is regaining strength as a key focus for plastic container suppliers – especially since consumers who purchase the premium fresh fruits and vegetables for which these higher value containers are most often used tend to be environmentally conscious.

Consequently, plastic container producers are focusing on improving product recyclability and increasing use of recycled content to mitigate negative consumer perceptions about the environmental impact of plastics. For example:

  • In July 2020, Vegpro – a major Canadian lettuce supplier with some distribution in the US Northeast – replaced all containers in its Fresh Attitude salad line (traditionally made from virgin plastic) with 100% recycled and recyclable plastic containers developed with Cascades.
  • In February 2020, a number of berry growers and trade associations in the US – including the California Strawberry Commission, the North American Blueberry Council, and the National Berry Crops Initiative – pledged to use 100% recycle-ready packaging for all fresh berries by 2025.

Want to Lean More?

Fresh Produce Plastic Containers is now available from the Freedonia Group.

About the Author:

Peter Kusnic is a Content Writer with The Freedonia Group, where he researches and writes studies focused on an array of industries.

  Consumer Goods      Industry Studies      Packaging