Fresh Vegetable & Salad Packaging

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This study analyzes the US market for fresh vegetable and salad packaging. This encompasses fresh, minimally processed vegetables, as well as salad mixes and fresh-cut vegetables.

Demand may be broadly discussed by two product types – rigid and flexible packaging – and by four material categories – plastic, paper and paperboard, molded pulp, and other materials (e.g., cotton mesh, foil wrap, plastic mesh, wood, textiles)

Specific products covered include the following:

  • retail-ready and other corrugated boxes (regular slotted containers, full telescoping boxes, boxes with cut-outs for display purposes, open-top tray-style boxes, fold-over gift boxes, bulk bins)
  • bags, including bag liners (e.g., plastic mesh, paper, textile)
  • plastic containers (clamshells, tubs, cups, bowls, square &and rectangular two-piece containers, and pails, domed containers, lidded buckets)
  • pouches (pillow and stand-up)
  • trays and platters (including molded pulp, rigid plastic, expanded polystyrene foam, and paperboard types)
  • other packaging, including:
    • baskets, punnets, and tills
    • reusable plastic containers (RPCs)
    • plastic film
    • foam boxes
    • wood crates
    • folding cartons
    • sleeves
    • dividers
    • tissue paper
    • ventilation pads

For products packaged in combination-type formats – such as a tray of peppers enclosed in a pillow pouch – the value of each type of packaging is counted separately and included within each respective product segment.

Fresh vegetable and salad packaging demand is also discussed by application:

  • salad
  • tomatoes
  • potatoes
  • onions
  • lettuce
  • carrots
  • mushrooms
  • celery
  • cabbage
  • peppers
  • other vegetables (e.g., asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, kale, spinach, squash, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, yams, zucchini)

Furthermore, demand is examined by format: ready-to-eat and all other formats

Excluded from the scope of this study are:

  • canned and frozen fruits and vegetables
  • packaging for nuts, herbs, seeds, spices, and other items commonly sold in produce departments other than fresh fruits and vegetables
  • plastic and paper retail bags
  • plastic bags provided in produce departments for customer self-service
  • bag closures and separately -sold lids
  • rubber bands and twist ties
  • restaurant and foodservice carryout containers, including those used for in -store prepared foods
  • packaging used for canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables
  • pallet wrap
  • corrugated displays other than bulk bins (i.e., freestanding or handing displays designed to hold packaged goods)

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.


Rigid vs. Flexible Packaging Trends

In contrast to a number of other sectors in the food industry, in the fresh vegetable and produce market, rigid packaging is slightly outpacing flexible types primarily due to:

  • the strong performance of rigid plastic containers for salads, driving a shift away from pillow pouches, which have historically dominated the salad category
  • growing sales of pre-cut/pre-sliced/diced vegetables and other RTE produce – these and other delicate items such as some premium lettuces (e.g., “living lettuce”) often require the greater protective properties of rigid containers
  • rapid increases in retail-ready corrugated boxes
  • fast expansion in the use of RPCs, which are more costly than corrugated boxes

Nonetheless, plastic bags and pouches will continue to compete with rigid packaging, as they can offer greater cost effectiveness, space savings, lighter weight, and overall source reduction.


Demand by Material

Plastic accounts for the majority share of fresh vegetable and salad packaging sales (54% in 2019), as it is the most commonly used material for rigid packaging such as clamshells and other plastic containers, trays and platters, baskets, and flexible packaging such as bags, pouches, and film.

Plastic has gained share over paper and other materials such as mesh due to performance advantages including light weight, moisture resistance, enhanced barrier properties, and puncture resistance. Source reduction efforts have also favored flexible plastic packaging formats, such as pouches.

Campaigns to improve public awareness of the energy and emissions savings related to plastic will help promote the use of plastic packaging. However, some produce suppliers – especially producers of organic or other specialty types– opt for paper or molded pulp packaging that consumers will perceive as eco-friendly.


Ready-to-Eat Fresh Vegetable & Salad Trends

Ready-to-eat vegetables and salad mixes are pre-cut, pre-washed, and able to be used directly from the packaging without further preparation. Ready-to-eat produce has grown in popularity due to its enhanced convenience over standard options, which users must wash and/or cut themselves. Often premium retail products, ready-to-eat items tend to employ value-added packaging such as pouches and rigid plastic containers.

Through 2024, packaging demand for ready-to-eat fresh vegetables and salad mixes will slightly outpace packaging demand for other types, rising to account for 30% of vegetable and salad packaging. Gains for RTE packaging will be supported by:

  • rising consumer and foodservice demand for more convenient produce options that minimize prep time
  • the higher intensity of packaging demand per ready-to-eat product compared to other types

However, an even faster rate of growth for RTE packaging will be restrained by the maturity of salad applications, which were early adopters of this format and have accounted for a majority of RTE packaging demand throughout the historical period.

Ready-to-eat vegetables and salad mixes are generally packaged in smaller volumes for retail, bolstering unit sales, while other types of vegetables and salad mixes are usually packaged in bulk that enables consumers to handpick the quantity of produce they want.


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