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This study analyzes the US market for produce corrugated boxes. Produce is defined as fresh, minimally processed fruits and vegetables, and for the purposes of this report includes salad mixes and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.
Demand by Type
Demand for corrugated boxes in fresh produce applications is projected to increase 3.3% per year to $2.4 billion in 2024. Greater use of improved, valued added boxes – notably modular and display-ready containers, white-top linerboard boxes, and moisture-resistant boxes – will provide support to market value.
Unit demand will expand 1.5% annually to 2.6 billion boxes, outpacing fresh produce production based on the greater use of smaller boxes, especially for fresh-cut produce and other more delicate items. Demand for boxes will also be aided by the increasing popularity of locally grown produce in retail establishments, as boxes are more likely to be used in these situations. However, growth will be restrained by market maturity and competition from other bulk containers, particularly RPCs.
Demand by Application
Demand for corrugated boxes in fresh produce applications is projected to increase 3.3% per year to $2.4 billion in 2024. As corrugated boxes are a mature product, growth will mainly be driven by increased production of the produce types packaged in boxes.
Corrugated boxes find use in a wide range of produce applications, with citrus fruits, apples, tomatoes, salad, berries, and potatoes among the leading uses. For produce such as berries, mushrooms, or cherry or grape tomatoes, boxes are generally used as secondary packaging to hold rigid plastic containers or baskets of these products.
In a number of applications (e.g., onions, lettuce, melons) boxes are losing ground to plastic containers and flexible packaging alternatives for primary packaging, and to RPCs in some secondary packaging applications. However, these losses will be offset somewhat by strong increases in the use of retail-ready boxes.
The produce market for packaging is highly competitive, and pricing plays an important role in packaging choice. However, the decision process is usually more complicated than a simple direct comparison of unit prices, as factors such as sustainability and the rising popularity and low cost of plastic produce packaging complicate matters.
Average box prices are expected to increase 1.8% annually through 2024, with growth limited to some extent by changes in the product mix favoring smaller box sizes.
Prices for corrugated produce boxes are primarily affected by trends in the US economy, price fluctuations of raw materials, and trends in the popularity of other produce packaging materials. Average corrugated and paperboard box prices can fluctuate significantly from year to year because of pricing variations in pulp and other raw materials. Since boxes are typically considered to be commodity products and face competition from other packaging formats, pricing is a significant competitive factor for box manufacturers.
Products covered include the following corrugated box types:
regular slotted containers
full telescoping boxes
boxes with cut-outs for display purposes
open-top tray-style boxes
fold-over gift boxes
Demand is also discussed by produce applications:
fresh vegetables (e.g., tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, onions, carrots, mushrooms celery, cabbage, peppers)
fresh fruit (e.g., berries, apples, melons, citrus, grapes)
Excluded from the scope of this study are:
packaging for nuts, herbs, seeds, spices, and other items commonly sold in produce departments other than fresh fruits and vegetables
separately sold lids
restaurant and foodservice carryout containers, including those used for in -store prepared foods
packaging used for canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables
plastic baskets, punnets, and tills
Historical data (2009, 2014, and 2019) and forecasts for 2024 are presented for produce packaging demand in millions of dollars using current US dollars (including inflation) and in unit terms by product and application. The terms “shipments”, “production”, and “output” are used interchangeably in the study, as are the terms “demand”, “sales”, and “market”, which are defined as domestic shipments, plus imports, minus exports.
Demand for corrugated boxes used to package fresh produce is projected to increase 3.3% per year to $2.4 billion in 2024. Sales gains will be supported by:
modest increases in domestic produce production
rising use of value-added boxes, such as those with retail-ready features designed to reduce labor costs, white-top linerboard boxes, those with additional functionality, and moisture-resistant boxes
However, boxes continue to face competition from other packaging types, mostly reusable plastic containers (RPCs), which offer similar advantages in shipping and warehousing logistics and also benefit from a sustainability standpoint due to their greater durability, promoting reuse.
Retail-Ready Boxes Offer the Best Opportunities Due to Their Competitive Advantages
Retail-ready boxes are expected to register stronger advances than other box types due to their ability to improve logistics compared to other boxes and to compete against alternative shipping solutions, namely RPCs. These boxes are low cost and able to be printed with high-quality graphics, which promotes branding. Additionally, suppliers continue to innovate with the addition of more functional features that improve ease of use and the applications for which boxes are well suited.
Corrugated Common Footprint (CCF) boxes are well established, easily recycled, and accepted by retailers as efficient, one-way shipping solutions. Additionally, they are lower cost than RPCs and can be printed with high-quality graphics that enhance their use as attractive packaging on store shelves.
Sustainability Initiatives a Key Factor in Growth
Corrugated boxes have long benefited from a positive environmental image, in part because of the generally favorable perception of paper and paperboard products as sustainable options, especially when compared to plastics. As consumers who commonly purchase large quantities of produce also tend to be environmentally conscious, use of packaging that is considered to be ecofriendly benefits sales of produce and improves consumer image of the companies from which they are purchasing these products.
Additionally, corrugated boxes have one of the most established recycling systems. Corrugated boxes that do not leave retail premises are recycled at a very high rate, and old corrugated boxes are one of the primary sources of fiber used in the production of new boxes. Box suppliers that serve the produce industry are further improving the sustainability of their products by introducing wax-free coated boxes and using water-based inks, which makes boxes more easily recyclable.