Getting out of the box

Very recently I poked a little fun at an unnamed job applicant’s attempt to stretch his grocery sacking experience into the area of packaging design.  But lurking near that tongue-in-cheek soliloquy was an old rant I’ve been meaning to put to voice for some time.

Today I bought two different health supplement products, two packages of each.  In both cases, I was able to combine the entire contents into a single container.  Then I summarily discarded the unnecessary packages.

Although my discomfort with this was somewhat mitigated by our habit of recycling in this household, I’m still disturbed that manufacturers cannot seem to move past this very wasteful habit.  I wouldn’t mind quite as much, except now they’re leaving out the cotton stuffing that used to keep pills from rattling.  Hey, I used that thing!

I understand the marketing motivation behind the carton arms race: larger containers mean more advertising real estate on the grocers’ shelves.  Larger containers crowd out their neighbors.  Plus we’re constantly reminded that “some settling of contents may occur”.

But there are easy, clever work-arounds.  For starters, if all manufacturers would make their packaging more appropriate to content size then the size-based competition becomes largely moot.  In addition, in-store placards, flyers, floor stickers and coupon dispensers can meet the advertising need.  Finally, settling can be mechanically induced and accelerated during the production cycle so that packaging can more closely fit the contents without much dead air greeting the purchaser.

I find that in my purchases there are more cases of doubled packaging than not.  I don’t need a shell protecting another shell around the product I buy… and I know that waste is factored into the product cost.  That premium may be tiny for me, but it adds up for the manufacturer.  I wonder how many have analyzed their production stream and product lifecycles to see if they actually realize any ultimate benefit from excess packaging.  I’m betting that, all things considered, they aren’t.

I read some time ago about a new gallon-sized plastic milk carton design that won awards for its design innovation.  The top was flat, like the bottom, and the spout was unobtrusively located below the upper edge so that cartons could be stacked on each other without requiring other crating.  The idea was ingenius.  We should already be seeing examples of this simple brilliance in grocery stores… but I have not seen a one.  I can’t even find the story on the internet.

So I’ll throw this challenge out to the future stars of industrial design: let’s abandon this wasteful legacy wholesale and start getting smart about product sizes and packages.  You can begin by making all round medicine bottles square, and getting rid of the cardboard box around them.  Thanks in advance. 😉


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