A few days ago, I woke up in the middle of the night stewing about plastics — in particular, the continuing, insidious use of excessive and totally unnecessary plastics in packaging. While waking up with these thoughts is slightly bizarre, feeling enraged about excessive plastic packaging is, unfortunately, a regular occurrence in my little household of one.
A couple of years ago I was judging the One Show with Brian Collins (among others) and he began to rail over some of the packaging submitted, running around assembling candidates for an award for Crimes Against Humanity (an award which, sadly, was never given). This was more along the lines of the rotating, pop-up, fold-out, pulsating, multi-layer, 99%-of-the-cost-of-the-product type packaging ... in other words, the apotheosis of irresponsibility. However, it's not just excessive glitz that sends me over the edge. I feel that outrage nearly every time I interact with new products.
Whenever I buy something or receive a parcel, I go into apoplectic tirades about the plastic encasing of every single part of even the simplest of objects. In fact, in many respects, it is the lowest, cheapest products which are ubiquitously packaged in blister-packs.
We laugh at the Curb Your Enthusiasm‚ episode where Larry can't get into the plastic packaging, and then later can't get into the packaging of the cutting knife he bought to open the packaging, because we've all been there and so easily identify with what's apparently called wrap rage. But we laugh because it can't be opened, not because it exists in the first place.
Think about it: why are spatulas, flashlights, knives, toys, rubber bands, pens, lightbulbs, phones, fridge magnets, screws and an insane plethora of doodads so often encased in plastic? Even easy-to open plastic? Why are there glass bottles wrapped in plastic? Why are there plastic bottles wrapped in plastic? Why do we need to see spaghetti through a plastic window on the box? There are plastic supports under shirt collars, and extra plastic supports around individual buttons. There are plastic tags and plastic wraps and plastic bags and plastic caps. Every time I open a box of electronic equipment, there are plastic trays and plastic supports and plastic peels on surfaces and plastic tabs to remove and plastic ties to undo ... why does every single [expletive deleted*] cord come in its own little [*ed] plastic bag? Even Apple, who designs some of the most elegant and largely (but not, alas, completely) paper-based packaging, puts every single part in a special plastic bag. Every single shiny surface has another plastic peel on it. If it's that [*ed] delicate, how is it going to persevere in my life?
This is insane. It has been about ten years now since designers have been hyper-aware of the excesses of packaging, and have been repeatedly entreated to influence their clients to choose better alternatives. There was an entire AIGA conference devoted to these issues in 2004 (a conference which many seemed to resent as being too preachy). So why is it that a full six years later, we're still wading through an ocean of plastic?
I notice it every single time I go to buy something, and routinely find myself choosing products based on their lack of packaging. I regularly walk away from a purchase because it's encased in plastic. Regularly. Every time I open a box, I notice every little piece of the packaging, and at the end of the process, stare helplessly at the handful or armful of plastic and styrofoam, where I recycle what I can, keep what looks potentially artistically useful, and shut my eyes and throw out the rest. It causes me such distress that it's a wonder I don't take to drink.
But mostly I just don't understand. We don't need to be protected from every surface, and every surface does not need to be protected from us. It's as though we have completely lost our minds. We have been aware of this for at least a decade, a period in which I have witnessed no discernible change. Sure, there are the few high-end, specialty products with their lovely debossed paper boxes, but often even they fail once you get inside to discover e.g. tea-bags in individual wrappers, and safety seals for non-consumables, etc.
I notice when a company succeeds: when J.Crew sends me a shirt stuffed in a lovely paper envelope, and it arrives all squishy and soft, and I reach in and feel not plastic, but fabric. But I don't want to notice when they succeed. I want this to be the rule, not the exception.
Designers, this is your job! This is what you do. This really and truly is your responsibility. This is what having a seat at the table‚ and influencing the decision-makers‚ is all about. This is absolutely where you are supposed to apply your higher skills of thinking and design. And students, consider specializing in advanced box-folding. Whenever I do get something that ingeniously fits into a recyclable structure that magically folds flat, I think what fun it would be to figure such things out.
This gift-giving season, I want you to notice the packaging of everything you have bought. And if means ruining your special day by hoping you feel sick when everything has been opened, so be it. I hope you do, because you should. I know I will.
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