15 Preferred Thermoforming Materials For Plastic Shipping Trays

Not all plastics are usable in thermoforming, but there are an overwhelming number of options for thermoformed plastic shipping trays. Each of the materials listed in the chart below is considered a “thermoplastic” — a polymer resin that can be heated, reshaped, and cooled into a finished product. Flat sheets of these thermoplastics are transformed into trays when you soften them with heat and form them into one-sided molds by either vacuum forming or pressure forming. 

The types of thermoforming materials you’ll choose for your shipping tray application will depend on your preferred material traits and the limitations of the products you’re shipping. Some of the materials here have only niche cases for use in shipping trays (like Polycarbonate or PC), while others are versatile all-purpose favorites (like High Impact Polystyrene or HIPS). 

To help you make an informed decision, we’ve put together the following comparison table.

Types of Thermoforming Materials For Plastic Trays

Thermoforming Material

Notable Properties

Example Products

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

  • Opaque
  • Stiff
  • Lightweight
  • High impact strength
  • Flame-retardant
  • Resists temperatures -4°F to 176°F (-20°C to 80 ° C)
  • Low cost
  • Ideal for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications
  • Best suited for vacuum forming
  • Sports equipment
  • Automotive parts
  • 3D printing components
  • Plastic toys
  • Musical instruments
  • Electronic devices
  • Pipes
  • Machine casings/housings

Acrylic (“Plexiglass”)

  • Transparent
  • Shatter-resistant
  • Lightweight
  • Durable
  • UV-resistant
  • Best for thick-gauge applications
  • Works well with vacuum forming
  • Retail display windows
  • Retail shelving
  • Fish tanks
  • Television screens
  • Casings for lighting fixtures
  • Commercial signs

Cellulose Acetate

  • Tough
  • Deep gloss
  • Highly transparent
  • Natural feel
  • Made from wood pulp (renewable)
  • Easily weakened by strong alkaline solutions
  • Clear plastic mailing tubes
  • Photographic films
  • Packaging containers
  • Eyeglass frames
  • Transparencies for overhead projection
  • Fibers


  • Durable
  • Lightweight
  • Soft and malleable
  • Waterproof
  • Resistant to punctures and scratches

Polystyrene (PS)

  • Transparent 
  • Low impact resistance
  • Fair strength/stiffness
  • Not much chemical resistance
  • Moderate temperature resistance
  • Low cost

High Impact Polystyrene (HIPS)

  • Versatile, balanced properties
  • Increased toughness and impact strength vs. polystyrene
  • Cost-effective
  • Ideal for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications
  • Best suited for vacuum forming
  • Easy to customize aesthetically (color, transparency)
  • One of the most widely used materials for plastic packaging
  • Plastic shipping trays
  • Clamshell containers
  • Food packaging
  • Disposable cutlery/tableware
  • Medical trays
  • Electrical insulation

Polycarbonate (PC)

  • Highly transparent
  • Customizable to different shades
  • High impact strength
  • Heat resistant, but degrades over 140 ° F (60 ° C). 
  • Rigid, dimensionally stable
  • Low fatigue endurance
  • Good chemical resistance
  • More typical for injection molding than thermoforming
  • Strong electrical insulation properties
  • Ideal alternative to glass
  • Household appliances
  • Automotive parts (such as headlights)
  • Construction materials
  • Sunglasses and eyeglasses
  • Safety goggles
  • Electronic devices 
  • Helmets
  • Compact discs

Polyetherimide (PEI)

  • Natural amber color
  • Requires thick-gauge process
  • Extremely high-temperature resistance
  • Approved for aerospace products
  • Aircraft components
  • Medical devices
  • Electrical components

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

  • Chemical resistant
  • Resists most solvents
  • Low moisture absorption
  • Durable, fairly rigid
  • High strength-to-density
  • Ideal for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications
  • Food packaging and containers (milk jugs, juice bottles)
  • Chemical bottles and jugs (detergent, bleach, shampoo, cosmetics)
  • Containers for prolonged reuse

High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (HMWPE)

  • Similar to HDPE
  • Better than HDPE for applications with mated parts, abrasive forces, heavy slamming
  • Ideal for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications
  • Material handling products (wear parts, conveyor components)
  • Cutting boards
  • Abrasion resistant components

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

  • Transparent
  • Flexible 
  • Chemically stable 
  • Low gas permeability
  • Lightweight
  • One of the most commonly recycled plastics
  • Must dry after forming
  • Carbonated soft drinks and mineral water bottles
  • Synthetic fibers
  • Glass replacements in some applications.

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG)

  • Transparent
  • Great impact strength
  • Easy to mold 
  • Ideal for both thin-gauge and thick-gauge applications
  • Best suited for vacuum forming
  • Cost-effective
  • Ideal for thermoforming; sturdy and easy to mold with sharp detail
  • Food and beverage containers
  • Signage
  • Medical packaging
  • 3D-printed materials

Polypropylene (PP)

  • Used for both thick and thin-gauge applications.
  • Chemical-resistant
  • Rigid
  • Good impact strength
  • Performs well at higher temperatures
  • Elastic properties
  • Among most popular thermoformed plastics
  • Toys
  • Packaging 
  • Hinges
  • Plastic parts for machinery and equipment
  • Fibers and textiles

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

  • Works in both thick-gauge and thin-gauge applications
  • Ideal for vacuum-forming process 
  • Great resistance to grease, fire, impact, and extreme environments
  • Good electrical insulator
  • Pliable with addition of plasticizers
  • Can increase chemical stability and insulation properties with chlorination
  • One of the most widely-used thermoformed plastics
  • Construction materials and piping systems
  • Cables, wires, and electrical conduits
  • Signage
  • Clothing and fashion accessories
  • Chemical delivery systems
  • Hot and cold delivery systems

Thermoplastic Olefin (TPO)

  • Excellent impact resistance
  • High-gloss finish
  • More difficult to form than other options
  • Only for thick-gauge applications
  • Automotive components (dashboards, bumpers)


These and other thermoplastics can be used in thermoforming to create custom-molded plastic goods like shipping trays, but they’re not all created equal. For most applications, materials like TPO and acrylic have traits that would make other options more cost-effective, easier to form, and ultimately more appropriate. 

At Ready Made Plastic Trays, High Impact Polystyrene (HIPS) is one of our favorite thermoforming materials due to a great combination of traits: cost, customizability, durability, rigidity, and more. Most of our plastic shipping trays use HIPS, although we can certainly work with other materials as needed for your application. Connect with our team for more information on the material that would be right for your project.

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