Theft-proof plastic packaging isn't just irritating. It's bad for the planet and worse for your health.
By Jessica Lussenhop
'Twas the morning of Christmas when all through the house,
Every creature was stirring, most especially the mouse,
As Mom clicked on links that said "tourniquet" with care,
With the hopes that the EMTs soon would be there.
The children just wanted their toys to be freed
From the plastic, not knowing this would inevitably lead
To Dad grabbing a 'kerchief and starting to yell
After slicing off a digit with the plastic clamshell.
MANY viewers may have found themselves howling their agreement with Larry David during a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. After two minutes of attacking a hermetically sealed plastic package with a butter knife, a screwdriver and a chef's knife, he—and many of us—wanted to know: "Why would you manufacture a product you can't open?"
Why indeed? Who among us has not spent a Chanu-Chris-Kwanzaa morning going 10 rounds with the plastic packaging around a new MP3 player or tool or toy? And by far the worst part is when it adds injury to insult: the damned things are sharp, and a slip of the hand can result in, at the very least, the equivalent of a paper cut on steroids, and at the very worst a trip to the emergency room.
The packages, often called "clamshells," seem to be the great equalizer—even District 27 Assemblyman Bill Monning is pissed. "I am aware that emergency room doctors are seeing cuts from people trying to wrestle with and open these hard plastic-encased items," he says. "If you use scissors to open them or a knife, often that instrument is that one that delivers the wound. Often it can be a deep laceration that requires stitches. It's a public health risk."
If that sounds melodramatic, consider this—there's actually a term for this phenomenon. It's called "wrap rage." Think about it. Uncle Frank has had a couple of eggnogs by the time Little Sally comes running with her new Bratz doll, all hopped up on sugar and gift-opening adrenaline. She shrieks when her doll is still sealed in the plastic tomb five minutes later, and an agitated and tipsy Uncle Frank goes for the sharpest knife in the drawer. It's a recipe for disaster.
Dr. Greg Whitley, medical director of Dominican Emergency Services in Santa Cruz, agreed via email. "I/we have definitely seen lacerations from opening clear plastic containers. Most of the injuries involve opening the containers with a knife, and people cutting themselves with the knife or with the sharp edge of the plastic," he says. "These injuries can involve tendons and nerves in the hand, so they can be quite serious."
In the last few years, something like 6,000 wrap ragers hurt themselves badly enough to get those ambulance bells jing-a-linging all to the emergency room, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
That's not the only problem. As the nation becomes increasingly concerned with going green, the seemingly indestructible cases are easily imagined whiling away the centuries in a landfill or beefing up the Pacific Ocean plastic gyre.
"It's going to end up in that Pacific gyre, it's going to kill sea life, it's going to contribute to climate change and global warming," says Monning. "The moment you're opening it you face the risk of cuts, of lacerations. But perhaps the greater risk is where it goes after you open it."
All this is not news to the packaging industry. One source in package manufacturing contacted for this article would not even talk about them, "because people hate them," she said.
"Teaching packaging, everybody complains about these things constantly," says Dr. Fritz Yambrach, associate professor of packaging in the in the Applied Sciences and Arts Department at San Jose State University. "Here's the deal—it's on items that can be pilfered pretty easily. Anything people will steal and jam down their pants."
The reason clamshells are impossible to open is because they're supposed to be impossible to open. According to Yambrach, the plastic is made mostly from pellets of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and extruded out into sheets before being molded into shape and diffusion-bonded, or heat-sealed, closed. Your puny weapons are no match against industrial-strength heat sealing.
About a year ago it was all the rage for companies to badmouth the clamshell. Sony even launched something it called the "Death to the Clamshell" campaign. But one year later, you'll probably still be able to find many of their product heat sealed out of reach. "We're certainly cognizant of the environmental health aspects involved in packaging," says David Migdal, VP of public relations at Sony, in San Diego. "The rub here is, how do we effectively display some of our smaller products and keep them safe from thieves at the same time?"
Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at Consumer Electronics Association—many of whose members produce the kind of small electronic goods that come in clamshells—agrees that we are by no means rapidly approaching a wrap-rageless future.
"If anything, there's been a move to more secure packaging for loss prevention," he says. "In the early days, Best Buy did not have somebody checking receipts at the door, but consumer electronics are more popular than ever, and they're going to be targeted by, unfortunately, dishonest people."
There is some good news. Yambrach says the industry has steered away from making the shells out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is believed by some to release cancer-linked chemicals, and Koenig says while companies may continue to use clamshells, they may be using smaller ones, or versions with less inside—fewer plastic trays, twist ties, etc.
But other businesses are moving more aggressively toward a clamshell-free future, like Amazon.com, which launched its "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative last year with 19 products available to be shipped in a simple cardboard box, not the clamshell the same product could be found in at the store. This year, the count is up to 30 manufacturers and 350 products available frustration-free. "Wrap rage is real," wrote Amazon.com spokeswoman Anya Waring in an email. "Customers have been responding very positively to the program." Waring says the Frustration-Free is now launching worldwide in places like France ("Déballer sans s'énerver") and Germany ("Frustfreie Verpackung").
Amazon.com, however, has the benefit of being an online business, and manufacturers say they're boxed in by the simultaneous need to draw customers in and shut thieves out. And a few thousand traumatized consumers (Parent Tested Parent Approved recently sent out a press release about clamshells claiming that a member's daughter called her present the "bad daddy blood game" after her father wrap-raged) isn't going to be enough to incentivize the end of clamshells.
One solution, says Monning, in the spirit of Styrofoam and plastic bag bans, is political. "Extend producer responsibility," he says. "Maybe they're responsible for the recovery of that piece of packaging—they're going to have to pay through fees to the state or federal government that anticipate the cost of recycling and recovery. What's the real cost of that package in terms of climate change, in terms of danger to the environment, the danger to the consumer? Does that victim of the cut—do they have health insurance?"
Health insurance, climate change—one puny package can touch on some of the most crucial challenges facing our country. But that's the power of the clamshell. Man has long wondered if his creations would one day turn on him. We need only look beneath the tree in all those pretty packages to see evidence that it's happened. Consider yourselves warned this holiday season, before all shells break loose.
Rage vs. Machine
WHEREVER consumers are suffering, Consumer Reports is there. Which is why in 2006 the magazine created the "Oyster Award," a dubious honor bestowed upon products whose packages were deemed the most difficult to open. Readers were asked to submit product nominations to the Consumer Reports website, at which point the semifinalists were set upon by volunteers of different ages. The volunteers first used their hands, then were permitted scissors, box cutters and ultimately wire cutters. The carnage was timed until the first volunteer reached the prize inside. In 2006, the Uniden digital cordless telephone took the title, not only because it took testers nine minutes and 22 seconds to free it, but because the edges of the package were particularly sharp, adding a kind of danger differential. Second place went to American Idol Barbie, which took 15 minutes and 10 seconds to liberate. In 2007, the Oral-B Sonic Complete Toothbrush Kit and Bratz Sisterz dolls took the titles (the Bratz package took eight minutes and had a total of 50 restraints—the dolls even had their hair sewn into the cardboard). There was no winner declared in 2008 because the magazine decided there hadn't been enough changes in packaging. It remains to be seen whether someone will take home an Oystie in 2009.
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