Whether they’re 1-ounce packages of raisins or 1,000-pound containers of watermelons, the bags, bins and boxes that produce comes in not only help keep product fresh and in good condition, but, increasingly, they’re playing an important role as merchandising tools.

The role of packaging has reached such prominence that, for the past five years, the Produce Marketing Association has honored the industry’s top packaging innovators with Impact Awards recognizing their achievements.

Packaging plays a key role in “connecting with consumers, enhancing food safety, sustaining the environment and improving supply chain efficiencies,” said Bryan Silbermann, PMA president and chief executive officer.

Packaging has become a lot more than just a means of containing or transporting product.

The peel/reseal Apio squash package, which earned an Impact Award for Apio Inc., Guadalupe, Calif., and Clear Lam Packaging Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., “allows for an entirely new consumer experience,” said Ron Midyett, Apio chief executive officer.

That experience includes “bright, eye-catching graphics and a handy recipe.”

The Live Gourmet living lettuce “Squircle” clamshell and shipping container that earned an Impact Award for Hollandia Produce LLC, Carpinteria, Calif., was created to maximize space on pallets, reduce freight costs and attract attention on the produce shelf, said Vince Choate, director of marketing.

Many of the Impact Award entries included an emphasis on recyclability, which has become a buzzword in the packaging and produce industries.

The Corrugated Packaging Alliance, Elk Grove, Ill., said that 85% of corrugated packaging was recovered in 2010, and supermarkets were the leaders in that effort, recovering nearly all of their used corrugated material.

Clamshell containers are recyclable, as well.

Hollandia’s award-winning clamshells are made from up to 70% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Choate said. And they are Level 1 recyclable after use, just like soda and water bottles.

Likewise, Apio’s squash package reduces plastic use and minimizes its carbon footprint, Midyett said.

Reusable plastic containers also continue to gain ground, said Fred Heptinstall, president and general manager for IFCO’s RPC Management Services Division in Tampa, Fla.

By the end of the year, 102 retail distribution centers will be actively using RPCs, servicing about 11,300 stores, he said.

RPCs are retailer driven, and customers range from small to large supermarket chains that find that the containers help ensure good arrivals while holding down supply chain costs, reducing waste and carbon emissions and saving labor, he said.

In some cases, RPCs double as retail display units, as do an increasing number of today’s produce bags and boxes.

While some grower-shippers prefer to project a natural, environmentally friendly image with one- or two-color printing on brown kraft boxes, others choose to create a more elegant white or black box with multi-colored printing and intricate artwork, said Don Reggio, marketing manager for corrugated packaging for Rock-Tenn Co., Norcross, Ga.

“It’s all about marketing position relative to their competition, their product category and what’s in the marketplace,” he said.

Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., uses display boxes to call attention to its specialty apples, like the Piñata and SweeTango, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

Bags, too, have become useful marketing tools.

Rainier Fruit Co., Yakima, Wash., designed apple bags that match its display cartons and subtly get across the message that “apples are good for you,” said Suzanne Wolter, marketing director.

Onions Etc., Stockton, Calif., practices “kitchen counter merchandising” by including recipes and ingredient shopping lists on bags of onions, said Derrell Kelso Jr., president and chief executive officer.

One recipe, for example, calls for a grapefruit, sweet onion and an avocado.

“It explodes with color,” Kelso said.