Your crops have grown. Berries, bell peppers, squash, zucchini, and rows of fresh lettuce and leafy greens stand waiting for water and harvest, glistening in the sun (or under the lights!)
How will you package them?
Your production process is as unique as your product. Your marketing message has been as carefully cultivated as your produce, and your need to stand out in the market is just as strong.
As a producer, more than having the most efficient or cost-effective packaging solutions for your business is required. You must add superior value, convenience, and assured quality for your customers to build trust.
Beginning your journey to find the perfect produce packaging type or design can be a challenge. It can leave you wondering if you’ve solved the mystery of meeting client preferences while enhancing product presentation and optimizing production.
Together, we’ll explore a beginner’s guide to today’s fresh produce packaging, detailing the top applications available and the advantages and drawbacks of each to give you a clearer idea of the road ahead.
WHAT ARE THE TOP PRODUCE PACKAGING TYPES AVAILABLE TODAY?
Deciding on the packaging type that best suits your brand is critical to selling and distributing your products. Questions of security, cost, appearance, and sustainability for eco-conscious retailers and consumers have come to the forefront, causing a great reevaluation of everything from produce production to supply chain and customer demand.
It is essential to carefully evaluate your produce packaging options and choose the application that best meets your needs and those of your customers. Select the fresh produce packaging solution that provides the highest number of advantages and the fewest drawbacks over the life of your equipment.
HANDBAGGING & CARTONING
Manually bagging produce requires the least amount of packaging materials – aside from simple band sealing – and the fewest barriers between your customer and the product. Completed on-site in and in the growing fields, laborers can group and package produce in real-time before weighing, transporting, and shipping from their facilities to retailers nationwide.
Incredibly effective in its simplicity, handbagging offers improved value and convenience to consumers with a broader selection of packaged products available. Manual bagged packaging can integrate large, attractive graphics to draw attention and cover any undesirable effects of processing fresh produce (such as browning or cutting), and additional features such as a zipper and handle for unmatched ease of use.
Ideal for commodity produce – defined as collections of grouped products – manual bagging utilizes the most rudimentary plastic packaging materials and methods yet gives consumers something different and more desirable than unpackaged produce.
For all its simplified function and attractive marketing, manual bagging offers little in the way of product protection or preservation. Delicate produce like grapes, tomatoes, celery, and romaine lettuce are subject to accelerated oxygenation and damage during transport, further exacerbating the 40% food waste throughout the U.S.
Manual bagging also utilizes low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) bags. These types of packaging are largely unrecyclable without consumer involvement and conflict with the growing sustainability movements in the fresh produce packaging sector. These PE bags end up in landfills, requiring up to 450 years to decompose.
INDUSTRIAL THERMOFORMED CLAMSHELL PRODUCE PACKAGING
With its ease of use and utilitarian design, thermoformed clamshell packaging allows workers to readily package smaller mass produce – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, and some commodity greens – directly in the field.
Traditional clamshell produce packaging also has specially designed features for product freshness and preservation. Perforations allow airflow to permeate the packaging, ensuring ideal product respiration, off-gassing, and maximum freshness, and a flanged lid provides a basic level of product protection and security.
Like hand bagging, once produce is packaged, it can be weighed, labeled, refrigerated, and immediately transported to grocery store shelves for retail sales.
However simplified the packaging tactics are with classic clamshell packaging, producers and retailers are opting for more flexible formats, such as tray seal packaging, corrugated cardboard, and rPET-based packaging films. Manufacturers seek more value and improved product security from their packaging, such as tamper evidence, simplified transportation logistics and safety, and avenues to reach the sustainability goals set by consumer demand.
Along with concerns about product preservation, producers are also beginning to see the benefits of more sustainable packaging materials for their commodity produce.
For example, switching from clamshell packaging to tray sealing with a flexible sealing film can reduce required packaging materials by up to 15%. This transition significantly reduces material costs on the production side, provides better marketing opportunities through advanced integrated artwork, and matches developing sustainability goals for the future.
STRETCH FILM/TRAY OVERWRAP PRODUCE PACKAGING
Stretch film/tray overwrap packaging offers cost-effective versatility, reliability, and speed for a wide array of produce products. Ideal for packaging whole vegetables, such as corn, zucchini, squash, or bell peppers, stretch film/tray overwrap packages a wide range of tray sizes and packaging formats on one machine without complex tooling changeovers. The system’s ease of use and simple maintenance make it the ideal choice for packaging with multiple film types (PVC, polyethylene, SS and polyolefin), and the programmable film lengths and speeds match custom products and minimize consumption.
In addition to sealed packaging capabilities, stretch film/tray overwrap offers dynamic, customized aesthetics and attractive marketing opportunities using clear and printed stretch film. From these marketing opportunities, producers can dictate specialized pricing and sale tactics based on individualized items.
More economical than other applications, stretch film/tray overwrap packaging utilizes a non-recyclable polystyrene tray (in mass production) and PVC overwrap. While some producers implement these fresh produce packaging methods using recyclable PET trays, consumers, especially those eating only organic produce, say more is needed.
Current market trends demand less plastic packaging from major retailers over the next two years. Brands and manufacturers are responding in kind by setting lofty sustainability goals, many of which they must achieve within the next 1-5 years.
VERTICAL FORM FILL SEAL (VFFS) / VERTICAL BAGGING PRODUCE PACKAGING
Vertical form fill seal (VFFS) packaging is quickly becoming the packaging style of choice for modern growers. Whether whole or cut vegetables, vertical bagging solutions offer unmatched versatility and consumer convenience, efficiently packing and transporting a variety of smaller or different-sized portions.
Vertically bagged produce products can also be customized in terms of bag style, product fill weight, volume, sustainable PET materials, dimensions, and integrated Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP). They are designed to fill gusseted and flat-bottom stand-up bags – with or without zipper closure features – and carry-handle pouches with one of the widest varieties of whole or diced produce.
On the production side, vertical bagging applications are adept when integrating feature requirements such as reclosable zippers, advanced labeling and printing, and secondary packaging automation. They can be tailored to specific production rates and physical plant spaces while providing one of the lowest per-unit costs among bagging technologies.
When packaging produce with vertical bagging, equipment functionality, throughput, and production speeds can vary based on specific products. The process involves a vertical product drop at the apex of the equipment, which can bruise or damage softer fresh (vs. frozen) produce, such as tomatoes, peaches, strawberries, and celery. This product damage can cause small yet significant production gaps and fluctuations that must be accounted for.
HORIZONTAL FORM FILL SEAL (FLOW WRAPPING) PRODUCE PACKAGING
Packaging produce with horizontal form fill seal machinery (flow wrapping) is among the fastest and most efficient solutions available. Flow wrapping accommodates the broadest range of whole or cut products and simultaneously gives them a polished, professional look with transparent packaging.
Whether creating pillow packs with MAP or integrating heated shrink-wrap packaging, flow wrapping is the ideal solution for selling products individually or in groups.
Products such as zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes, and apples packaged together present a different and more dynamic presentation than a stretch film, but it also adds convenience. Consumers no longer have to select, bag, and price individual produce items, as they are grouped, packaged, and sold at a fixed price.
Shrink packaging created on flow wrapping equipment serves a dual function for singulated items. First, you have total control over moisture retention for cruciferous vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower), maintaining ideal product integrity and improving shelf life.
Next, when working with organic products, you can separate, process, and package them at speed without any fear of cross-contamination with non-organic produce. This packaging process creates sales and marketing benefits for your brand, as you can incorporate specific organic certifications and labeling to match your corresponding pricing premium.
Yet the best advantage of flow-wrapped produce packaging is that it allows for optimal flexibility with or without trays, depending on product. From a production standpoint, removing the tray can improve your packaging sustainability and net you an average material savings of three to five cents per package. In the scope of annual production – two, eight-hour shifts over 260 days of production – you’d save more than $187,200 per year.
Flow wrapping of produce is product dependent and the requirement of the tray is dictated by the product. With delicate products, it requires the tray to carry the product to reduce damage. This elevates the product preservation levels but detracts from packaging sustainability. While flow wrapping does allow for a broader product range, it can be limited with larger size differences.
Tray sealing is the ideal packaging solution for singular produce items (predominantly fruits and specialty salad greens) and convenient small product groups (celery and carrot snack packs, etc.). Tray sealing offers advanced preservation features such as reclosable peel and reseal for better product protection, preservation, and reduced product movement inside the package.
Tray sealing also stands unmatched from a sustainability standpoint. By integrating flexible, recyclable film seals, recyclable plastic lidding, and fibrous paper-based materials, tray sealing can reduce packaging materials by 15-30% when compared to more traditional packaging, such as clamshell or PVC overwrap.
Tray sealing’s improved sustainability is an essential element in creating a circular recycling economy for consumers and the produce packaging industry and is one of the most viable methods for achieving aggressive sustainability goals set down by some of the largest producers.
Opting for tray sealing for your fresh produce packaging offers additional logistics benefits as well. Utilizing tray sealing for berry harvesting, for instance, creates denser, more secure produce shipments from processing facilities to retail locations. This logistical adjustment reduces carbon emissions significantly and cuts the number of trucks on the road by a factor of EIGHT.
Though poised to replace industrial thermoformed clamshell packaging, tray sealing involves complex processes and technologies in its innovation. These costs won’t preclude producers from utilizing it throughout the market, but there are production expenditures involved with tray sealing.
Whereas most traditional fresh produce packaging can cost anywhere from $.15-$.20 per package, sustainable materials, such as recyclable plastics, paper, and fiber materials, can raise costs to approximately $.30 per package, according to experts.
Volume is another factor to consider when opting for tray-sealed produce. Tray sealing is limited to the products it can package based on the physical depth of the package.
You must also examine your annual production volume as correlated to sustainability savings. For example, small producers are more likely to pay more to package specialty produce, as they’re not producing enough to make a significant impact through sustainability. Conversely, large-scale producers will benefit more.
YOUR PRODUCT. YOUR CHOICE FOR PRODUCE PACKAGING.
Each produce packaging application offers advantages and drawbacks regarding production, efficiency, savings, and marketing. The key to success is to examine your unique needs, products, facilities, customers, and overall goals and discover the application that suits you best.
Whether you’re upgrading outdated equipment or starting fresh produce packaging production from scratch, talk to our experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging. We’ll provide an in-depth production analysis based on your specifications and augment your efforts to optimize packaging.
Together, we’ll discover the top, comprehensive packaging solution to proactively meet your requirements and respond to market trends now and for the future.