If there’s one thing that non-greenies and enviro-heroes can agree on, it’s that the way that most electronics (and their concomitant accessories, additional parts and hardware) are packaged is really, really annoying. We’ve all had the experience of purchasing a shiny (or matte, if that’s your thing) new piece of technological wonderfulness and having a devil of a time getting to our new toy. Whether ensconced inside a plastic clamshell that seems to be welded shut, or enveloped in layer after layer after layer (after layer) of cardboard and styrofoam, it seems like we’re not ever supposed to get to the goods. And contrary to what manufacturers would have you believe, all that stuff is NOT necessary; good packaging design can — and does — eliminate both the frustration and the waste involved in protecting a product from theft, breakage, overheating, or exposure to the elements.
Photo © Robert S. Donovan
Wasteful, inefficient and ineffective packaging is such a nuisance that the NYTimes recently covered the trials and tribulations of the person who oversees the topic at Amazon.com. Coining a new term, “Packaging rage,” the article went on to explain how some sellers are working to create ‘frustration-free‘ versions of boxes and containers. (This ‘rage’ isn’t exactly uncommon: I experienced it recently when I bought a new pair of headphones — not exactly the world’s most delicate piece of tech — and I was unable to open the package in my car on the way to the gym, despite hacking at the plastic with a metal fork, my keys, and my teeth. Smacking it on my car’s dash did little to help the situation, and that’s when I realized I was totally annoyed.)
Not only is extra packaging wasteful and annoying, but it can be dangerous too (OK, not exactly life-threatening, but still). As NYTimes reader ybmagpye commented on their message boards, “I tried opening fused clamshell packaging and couldn’t cut the damned thing open with scissors. So I grabbed the sharpest knife I have and 30 minutes later I was sitting in an emergency room, waiting for several stitches to my left thumb. The knife slipped and tore through the base of my thumb. I have the scar to prove it : I HATE plastic packaging!”
Photo © Paul Reynolds
Between consumer frustration and competition to green their notoriously wasteful and polluting industry, tech manufacturers have been taking steps to reduce environmental impacts in a number of areas, including packaging (the bonus is that most customers find the reduction and simplification of such to be a lot easier to open). Dell is packing its laptops in FSC-certified bamboo boxes and trays that also include a much lower volume of packaging ‘stuff’ than before. And HP redesigned its printer cartridge boxes after consumer consternation reached a fever pitch, and in the process, “cut down on 15 million pounds of materials over the course of 2007, including 6.8 million pounds of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.”
Apple, which has a checkered environmental past, makes a big deal about changes its made: “The new MacBook packaging is 53 percent smaller than that of the original MacBook. And smaller boxes are much better for the planet. Because smaller boxes mean we can fit more boxes on each shipping pallet. Which means more products will fit on each boat and plane. Which means fewer boats and planes are used, resulting in fewer CO2 emissions.” Not to mention it saves Steve Jobs some cash in the process.
Both the Apple and HP examples above prove that even if packaging isn’t made from recycled/biodegradable/recyclable materials (and they should be), just plain reducing the number of pieces and layers can save money, resources, and consumer annoyance. In most cases, packaging exists as it does due to design inertia, not because it’s efficient. A pilot test on repackaging an electronic toothbrush for Philips reminds us that good design can solve (or at least reduce) environmental impacts:
“Philips asked the supplier AllpakTrojan if it could create a new package. Because manufacturers usually use one supplier for the plastic part of their packages and another for the cardboard, “even before you make anything you’ve lost a little efficiency in the design process,” said Dave Hoover, sales manager for AllpakTrojan.
With this project, though, AllpakTrojan could use a single material, and it went through a machine just once instead of the two to three times required for the traditional package. “From design to finish, it’s as efficient as it gets,” he said.”
Tech packaging is definitely an area that can be simplified to benefit both consumers, companies’ bottom lines, and the planet.
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)