Fresh Produce Plastic Containers

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This study analyzes the US market for produce plastic containers. 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.

Products covered include the following:

  • clamshells
  • 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)
  • salad

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.


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.

Pricing Trends

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.


Competitive Products

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.

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