Thoughtless packaging

This blog is, as you know, called “Unfamiliar Perspectives”. The posts I have published so far have been about issues that are complex and raise difficult philosophical problems. But the blog was intended also to enable me to air rather less deep and complex issues about which I was concerned—–what might be called “grouches.” In fact, the URL things-that-bother.me would also bring you to this blog. I think it is time to introduce one of my grouches into the sequence of postings. This one I have entitled “Thoughtless packaging.” Note that what I am talking about here is not grand issues like the enormous waste that the mania for packaging causes, or the environmental costs associated with its production and disposal. Rather, I am talking about negative effects that thoughtless packaging has on the users of what the packaging contains.

For instance, we have all been, at the very least, annoyed by packages that do not supply any obvious opening mechanisms. People, and especially old or infirm people, should not need to use tools to access what they have purchased. Worse, when packages, for instance, those containing dried pet food, do provide an opening mechanism, it often simply does not work. As another example, a currently popular breakfast food comes in a rectilinear carton, with a straw, needed to consume the contents, enclosed in a thin-walled but strong transparent tubular container, which is stuck to the carton. Sometimes, when one pulls this container off the carton, it ruptures at the end, and the straw can be extracted. More often, it does not rupture, and one then needs to find some implement (I use a ballpoint pen) to tear the tube. It is an unnecessary nuisance. The makers of the product should have ensured that the tube WOULD rupture when one pulled it off.

This kind of thoughtless manufacturing becomes a more serious matter in some commercial sectors. The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, sells pills of many different kinds, many of them to people who are old and or ill, or weakened by infirmity. How thoughtless is it to provide some of these pills in bottles with childproof lids, making their contents inaccessible to people who are old, weak or arthritic?

But the makers of pharmaceutical products often lead their customers to question whether they care about them. They have often put a great deal of effort into the development of the product itself, but not into the interface betwen the customer and the product. An outstanding example, in my experience, was a bottle of garlic pills produced by a highly reputable company. The bottle itself was beautifully designed, made of glass, and shaped perfectly so that it was easy to slide pills out of it with a finger. It had a one-piece collar and lid made of a flexible plastic, with the lid part joined to the collar part by a slim strap that acted as a hinge. Initially I was quite impressed, but the “hinge” broke after a few days, so one had to pull the lid off to get a pill, and then push it back on. Mysteriously, the lid became harder and harder to take off and replace, until, eventually, it would had have been impossible for anyone with weak fingers or arthritis to access the pills. But I, not having finger problems, persisted, only to have the lid break, well before the pills were finished. Presumably, the plastic they had used was one which became progressively harder and more brittle in the Australian climate. One might reasonably have hoped that the company would paid as much attention to the selection of its packaging material as to developing its pills,

But the garlic pills example, impressive as it is, is only one of innumerable possible illustrations of the way packaging fails to be given adequate attention in the pharmaceutical industry. For instance, the pills containing a particular antihypertension drug are tiny, and they come, thirty at a time, as a thin layer at the bottom of a small bottle. Also in the bottle are two cylindrical desiccation capsules each with a diameter of half an inch and a length of five-eighths of an inch. How could the makers have failed to see how inconvenient that system is to people who have to extract the pills one by one? Surely there most be a better way! Again, if they are going to provide pills in blister packs, why can they not do the necessary research to ensure that the foil is not, on the one hand, so thin and weak that one inevitably finishes up with a torn-off shred of foil that is a minor nuisance in itself, or on the other, so tough that it either defeats weak fingers, or requires so much force that the pill is often broken in half. Yet again, if they are going to seal a bottle with foil, why can they not, (a), provide a tab so that the foil can be pulled off without the use of tools, and (b), use a glue that is not so strong as to ensure that the bottle finishes up with a rim of torn foil for the rest of time?

Grrrrr!