Corrugated Packaging Rides Sustainability Wave

Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of Produce Business.

Sales are boosted by innovation and new usage ideas.

Corrugated may represent the traditional way to pack, transport and merchandise produce but the format is garnering renewed attention as demand builds for more sustainable packaging solutions. Advances in digital printing technology and packaging structure have enhanced the ability of corrugated to deliver on its core attributes to safely transport perishables to retail stores, where the packaging can be put on display illustrating vivid graphics to encourage shoppers to try new products, preparation ideas and/or boost sales.

“Corrugated is a very traditional form of packaging; it’s been around for 150 years, but it remains on trend today because of consumer desire for sustainable packaging,” explains Rachel Kenyon, senior vice president of Fibre Box Association (FBA), Itasca, IL.

FBA annually seeks North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) data from corrugated manufacturing companies to determine where boxes are being used. According to its findings, one quarter of all box shipments in 2018 went to food and beverage packaging, and 7% of the total 392 billion square feet shipped went to fruits, vegetables and herb packaging; consistent with the previous year.

Generally, the benefits of shelf-ready corrugated boxes and bins have remained true over time, according to John Huston, sales manager at WestRock, a corrugated packaging company based in Atlanta. However, he notes the value of those benefits has dramatically increased as innovations in printing and structure have developed, and as consumer preference has evolved.

“The entire lifecycle of non-wax-coated corrugated packaging holds value,” asserts Huston. “It’s ideal for transporting, handling and storing produce of all sizes and weights safely; its sanitary, one-time use mitigates risk of contamination; it can prolong the freshness of produce packed in it; it’s highly suited to display produce attractively; and it’s a perfect substrate for high-impact graphics. Finally, it is also recyclable.”

Sustainability and branding stand out as the key attributes for Sara Lozano, marketing manager of Sambrailo Packaging, Watsonville, CA. “Corrugated is an established renewable and sustainable resource and it possesses biodegradability, direct printing capabilities, and design flexibility for structural design and branding,” she notes.

Furthermore, corrugated can have a positive impact on retailers’ labor costs and sales lift, says Huston. “Corrugated packaging is very customizable, helping you minimize stock-outs with flexible footprint options. It can also increase your sales lift with eye-catching graphics,” he says.


Economical, versatile and sustainable, the beauty of corrugated is its ability to satisfy different requirements. “Some retailers have a model that prioritizes low labor costs,” explains Huston. “These companies need packaging that’s quick and easy to stock. Other retailers go to market with an environmentally friendly brand. For them, sustainable and recyclable packaging is paramount.

“Other retailers are trying to grab market share by using experiential aesthetics, and are looking for printed, attention-grabbing packaging to help achieve their goals. For others still, being a low-cost provider is important, so packaging that helps control cost in terms of labor, spoilage and damage is what they need. Corrugated packaging in its many forms can help every retailer.”

To drive sales, Lozano says one of the best ways retailers can tap into corrugated is by sharing the product’s story directly on boxes or bins. “There is so much marketing real estate on paper, and utilizing paper rather than plastic communicates another message about reducing plastic in your store, your produce space, and what is important to your brand as a retailer,” she notes.

The opportunity to brand and sell products means corrugated is a canvas for creativity, according to Kenyon of FBA. “Digital printing on corrugated has enabled the industry to push the limits on color and graphic design,” she says. “The latest advancements in printing technology allow corrugated packages to showcase products, share nutrition and preparation information, and help sell the product with vivid graphics. Showcasing brands and themes has never been easier or more accessible.”

Kenyon advises retailers to discuss with manufacturers their produce objectives. “There’s a tremendous amount of experience and design capability in the industry,” she notes. “Box manufacturers can help make your vision come to life in your produce department. Consumers are looking for experiences and greater product information. Corrugated boxes and displays can help them interact with your department and find added delight in fruits and vegetables.”


With sustainability trending, Kenyon says it’s an “exciting time” for retailers to use corrugated to sell produce. “There’s a tremendous backlash against single-use packaging — particularly plastic — and that’s driven many in the supply chain to look more closely at corrugated because it’s made from a renewable resource, and has a very high recovery rate (96% in 2018),” she asserts. “Corrugated boxes are made to be remade.”

For Kenyon, it is only natural produce is packed in a plant-based package. “The fact corrugated is made from a renewable resource (trees), and has a recovery rate that’s hovered around 90% for the past eight years is important to consumers,” she says. “On average, corrugated boxes contain 50% recycled content. Also, the industry has been tracking progress on environmental impacts through three lifecycle assessments beginning with baseline data in 2006.”

Although WestRock’s Huston doesn’t think the corrugated industry has seen the full impact of calls for environmentally friendly packaging, he says sustainability is a wave that is building. “Non-wax corrugated containers help retailers appeal to consumers who are more conscious of the environmental impacts of their buying decisions,” Huston points out.

“Corrugated containers are also unique because they offer many ways to reduce your environmental impact. Growers and distributors can work with corrugated suppliers to design packaging that reduces the amount of fiber used and/or the square footage of the box, while still protecting and preserving produce. Boxes that are right-sized, right-weight and designed with performance in mind can drive sustainability improvement throughout the supply chain.”

Lozano at Sambrailo says there could be more use of corrugated rather than plastic in the produce department, and advises retailers to consider carefully their packaging and display options. “Think about what messaging you want to have in store, how packaging choices represent your brand and the environment you wish to have your customers shop in. If sustainable packaging is a priority for your brand, and is what growers can help you achieve, that is a key alignment to have when merchandising.”


Looking ahead, the future appears bright. “I think we’ll be seeing more corrugated packaging as plastics continue not to be successfully recyclable and have end markets,” affirms Lozano.

Moreover, Kenyon says the ability of corrugated to communicate with consumers through vivid graphics, personalization and customization will only increase over time. “Recipes, pictures of plated and prepared fruits and vegetables, nutrition information, product origin and facts about how a product was grown and harvested can all be printed on the box,” she notes.

Ultimately, the potential for corrugated is far broader, says John Huston, sales manager at WestRock, based in Atlanta. “The industry is looking toward new innovations and solutions to address cold chain challenges, especially as they relate to packaging for ice-packed and hydro-packed produce. We continue to innovate in our industry to help solve our customers’ challenges.”