Demand by Container Type
Demand for plastic containers for fresh produce packaging is projected to increase 5.0% annually to $1.6 billion in 2024. In contrast to the trend seen in many other consumer packaging markets, demand for rigid plastic containers used in produce applications is advancing more quickly than for most flexible packaging types – with stand-up pouches a notable exception. In part, this is because clamshells and other plastic containers are newer products, supplanting commodity bags and pillow pouches.
Clamshells account for the majority of plastic container sales in produce applications, representing 62% of demand in 2019:
Clamshells are favored for their good protective and display properties, and are widely used for smaller and more fragile produce items that are more likely to be damaged if loose or packaged in flexible bags or pouches.
Tubs, cups, and bowls are primarily used for RTE foods, specifically salads and pre-cut/pre-sliced fruits and vegetables. These containers are expected to outpace clamshells and other container types due to strong demand for convenient, RTE options.
Other plastic containers largely consist of two-piece plastic containers used with salad mixes, as well as with diced vegetables such as onions and celery.
Pails are used to a more limited extent with fresh fruits and vegetables, almost entirely for bulk foodservice applications.
The produce market for packaging is highly competitive and pricing plays an important role in packaging choice.
Purpose-specific plastic containers can cost considerably more per unit than the packaging formats with which they directly compete. However, these packaging types also offer advantages that can result in overall cost savings, higher product sales, or additional profits. For instance, clamshells and other plastic containers can stack, making it easier to restock and to maintain an orderly produce display.
Input costs – most notably raw material costs – are the principal factors that determine packaging prices, although product complexity and manufacturing requirements are also important. For produce packaging, raw materials mainly include paperboard, pulp, and plastic resins.
Through 2024, the average produce plastic container price is expected to increase 2.4% per year to 18 cents per unit. Average price will return to growth after declines in resin costs contributed to sluggish pricing growth during the 2014-2019 period.
Plastic containers primarily compete with other types of prepackaging, including pouches, trays, baskets, and punnets.
Pouches represent the most intensive competition for plastic containers.
Trays packaged at retail locations and sealed with plastic wrap are sometimes used for pre-cut/pre-sliced fruits and vegetables. Baskets and punnets are typically used for smaller produce items such as berries, grapes, grape and cherry tomatoes that are also commonly packaged in plastic containers.
Compared to pouches, containers face somewhat less competition from bags, as these products are not commonly used to package pre-cut or smaller, more fragile items.
As with other types of prepackaging, plastic containers also compete with retail-ready, open-top corrugated boxes that display bulk, loose produce. A number of consumers continue to prefer selecting their own fruits and vegetables that they can hold and inspect, rather than purchasing prepackaged produce.
Demand by Produce Category
Demand for plastic containers used for fresh produce packaging is forecast to increase 5.0% per year to $1.6 billion in 2024. Fruit is the leading application for plastic containers, accounting for 52% of sales in 2019. Vegetables captured 35% of demand that year and are expected to see slightly stronger gains than fruit going forward:
Growth for plastic containers in vegetable applications will be fastest for lettuce and newer niche products such as small or exotic potato varieties are increasingly being packaged in clamshells, taking share from paper and plastic bags, in part for aesthetics.
Among fruit, the applications offering the strongest opportunities will be grapes, citrus (especially smaller fruits such as clementines and mandarins), and sliced apples, while berries will remain the largest use.
Salad will remain the smallest outlet for plastic containers, but will grow the fastest, as salad producers increasingly use bowls and other two-piece containers to differentiate their products from the now-commoditized bag salads.
Products covered include the following:
tubs, cups, and bowls
other plastic containers (e.g., square and rectangular two-piece containers, pails, domed containers, lidded buckets, shaped containers)
For products packaged in combination-type formats – such as a salad bowl containing separate smaller cups for add-ins or condiments – the value of each type of plastic container is counted separately and included within each respective product segment.
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 current US dollars (including inflation) 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.
US demand for plastic containers used to package fresh produce is forecast to grow 5.0% per year to $1.6 billion in 2024. Sales growth will be driven by:
expanding use of higher value containers that offer convenience, superior performance and shelf life, and/or an improved environmental footprint (e.g., recycled and recyclable plastics)
increasing sales of ready-to-eat (RTE) salads, which 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
the popularity of pre-cut produce such as apple slices, melon spears, and carrot sticks – typically sold in tubs, cups, or other rigid plastic containers – among both consumers and foodservice establishments
Additionally, sales will be bolstered by rebounding berry production – the leading application for produce plastic containers. However, production declines in other key fruit and vegetable types, including the sizable tomato segment, will limit stronger gains.
Produce Plastic Container Sales Accelerate Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Sales of produce plastic containers accelerated in 2020, boosted by several trends of the COVID-19 pandemic – including increased consumer grocery sales and safety concerns driving demand for prepackaged produce. Despite weakened demand in the foodservice sector due to dine-in volume restrictions, the produce industry was more resilient than anticipated through the pandemic, with growers and shippers able to adjust to new production, marketing, and transportation challenges, supporting produce plastic container demand increases. 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.
Clamshells & Other Plastic Containers Continue to Supplant Bags & Pouches in Produce Aisle
The main driver of sales growth will continue to be the replacement of commodity bags and pillow pouches with plastic containers in produce applications due to plastic’s good protective and display properties, especially with RTE fruits and vegetables such as grapes, onions, and tomatoes. For instance, salad producers are seeking to boost market value gains with upscale salad offerings in more attractive, value-added packaging, including clamshells and two-piece plastic containers. In addition, 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
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.