Saturday, June 15, 2013

Still Life With Robin: Good Things Come in Bad Packages

Photo by Tktktk (via Wikimedia Commons)
by Peggy Robin

My topic today, Hard-to-Open Packaging, falls under the category of First World Problems (1), but there's really no good reason why we should sneer at First World Problems. We should feel grateful we have them…and then try to solve them. If the First World economy works as the champions of the free market say it should, then the "invisible hand" of the marketplace should lead manufacturers to the realization that hard-to-open packaging is bad for business. Make it easier for your customers to get to your product and they will use it more and then buy even more of it. I'm not sure why it's taking so long for them to wake up to this useful truth. Instead, makers of so many products seem intent on frustrating their customers' efforts to get to the very thing they have bought.

Case in Point #1: The Infamous Clamshell.  Much has been written about it and why we should hate and avoid the clamshell (2). Most of us have experienced the frustration and even "wrap rage" (3) engendered when we try to break into the stubborn and all-but-impervious clamshell packaging. One determined reader wrote to tell me that she always keeps an X-Acto knife at the ready to extract items that come sealed in clamshells. Personally, I favor serrated-edge industrial shears, which, when not employed to scissor open a clamshell, are also well-suited for cutting carpets, linoleum, and roofing materials. Whatever you use to slice through the hard, molded forms of plastic to release the product you have purchased for some purpose, you will next encounter the problem of the razor-like sharpness of the edges left exposed by the cuts you've made, any one of which can, with one small mis-timed movement, come into contact with your vulnerable flesh and veins, and end  up sending you to the nearest emergency room. It happens all the time (4).

Case #2: The teeny-tiny bottle of eye-drops with its cap safety-sealed in a perforated plastic coat. The cap is so tiny that you can't take an X-Acto knife or even a small scissors to it. Yet the plastic is so tough that you can't peel it off along its almost-invisible perforations with your fingernails alone. Making the situation worse is the fact that you are half-blind because of the eye infection that has caused you to need the prescription eye drops in the first place. You probably can't even see the perforations that are meant to allow you to slit the plastic open on one side of the bottlecap. (Thanks to Laurie, who wrote to me about this particular packaging nightmare.)

Case #3: The cereal box that is easy to open --too easy-- with notched flaps that rip apart as soon as you try to separate them, leaving the box impossible to reclose as it was designed to be closed. This is a relatively new phenomenon. I used to be very good at opening cereal boxes carefully and neatly, preserving the cardboard tabs at the top, so that I can insert the "male" tab into the "female" slot to reclose the box properly. Lately, I have noticed that the boxes always tear. At first I thought I was doing something wrong. I must have lost my technique, I thought to myself, or maybe I'm just not paying attention as I pull the flaps apart on a new box. Then another similarly package-obsessed friend sent me an article that unpacked the mystery of the ripping box tops. It's *not* me. I'm not to blame. It's the packaging industry that has tried to put one over on all of us. They've gone and changed the boxtop design to make it harder to open cereal box without tearing the cardboard (5). Why would they do this? To save a few pennies per box. The flimsier, easier to tear notched boxtop design is slightly cheaper to produce than the more structurally-sound tab-and-slot design. The cereal box makers thought no one would notice, or if anyone did, they wouldn't care.

Well, I care. I care about all these things. Even though they are quintessentially First World Problems. But then we live in the First World, don't we? And we all want life to improve, in small ways as well as big ways. So if we can open a clamshell package without slashing a vein, or we can manage to uncap the eye drops without calling on the help of a better-sighted friend, or we can get to the cereal inside the cereal box without ripping the closing flaps, we'll all have more time to focus on the weightier woes of the world. I know I will.

(1) If you're not up-to-date on the First World Problems meme, go here:
(3) "Wrap rage" defined here:
(4) 2009 report of 6000 emergency room visits due to clamshell packaging injuries:
(5) One Man Focus Group reports on cereal box top designs that rip:


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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