What has packaging ever done for us?

“I took a train to Liverpool. They were having a festival of litter when I arrived. Citizens had taken time off from their busy activities to add crisp packets, empty cigarette boxes, and carrier-bags to the otherwise bland and neglected landscape. They fluttered gaily in the bushes and brought colour and texture to pavements and gutters. And to think that elsewhere we stick these objects in rubbish bags.”

– Bill Bryson, ‘Notes from a Small Island’


That’s the trouble with packaging: some of it has a useful life that’s measured in hours, yet it hangs around for months; even years… and we’re expending approximately 2% of our Gross Domestic Product upon it.

Easter egg

An Easter egg might not have a whole lot to do with the Resurrection, but life after death is a big problem for packaging. The plastic layer in this one could last for centuries.

Why should a wrapper last so much longer than the sandwich it contains? In short… what has packaging ever done for us?

Eight things, in fact: and here they are. It might provide physical protection (such as when an eggbox protects its fragile contents) or barrier protection (keeping dust and moisture out… or perhaps keeping moisture in, such as when keeping a loaf of bread fresh). Of course, small items might be fiddly, or too cheap to be worth the trouble of selling individually, so another purpose of packaging is containment, also referred to as ‘agglomeration’.

Container Ship

I never knew it, but what I got for my 6th birthday wasn’t a container ship: it was an agglomeration.

Next up, there’s information transmission, and this comes in two forms, probably best summarised as marketing and other information. The text, images and glimpses of the contents that seek to persuade you to part with your money make up the former, while other information might include the ‘best before’ date, instructions for recycling, safety warnings, or a barcode.

Then there’s security: seals so that you can be sure nobody has opened the package before you buy it, and perhaps an RFID tag in an anti-theft role. Anti-counterfeiting features such as labels that are difficult to copy also fall into this category.

The last two purposes of packaging are convenience, and portion control. Carrying handles, features that make a product stackable, spouts, pump dispensers and so on all exist for convenience, while portion control is found with things like yoghurt pots, or in applicators that deliver a single dose of a drug.

Are there really just eight purposes for packaging? Well… that’s what most practitioners seem to think. If you really want a longer list, my personal preference would be to further subdivide convenience, recognising that the features that make a product convenient to the customer might be entirely different to those that are convenient during shipping, or to the retailer. Features that make palletising or load securing easier might be examples of convenience in transit (although some convenience might be derived from characteristics of the product rather than the packaging – have a look at my presentation on design for logistics). For an example of packaging that is convenient for the retailer, we need look no further than punched holes or hooks that allow a clamshell or blister pack to be hung on a peg.

So that’s packaging: a two-edged sword. It’s useful, but it’s a source of a great deal of waste. It also makes an excellent topic for student projects because the complexity is about right. It’s hard to criticise a multinational such as Ford or Toyota for the environmental performance of a complicated system that might have twenty man-years of engineering in it, but critically reviewing the box for an Easter egg (or performing an entire life cycle analysis) is possible… and can be highly informative. Given the scale of consumption, the potential for waste is considerable… and packaging design is a science in itself.

Now, if you made it all the way down here to the end of the article, relax and enjoy this oldie, on the subject of information transmission in packaging design:

They might be pretty, but Apple’s early iPod boxes are actually pretty poor, in terms of design for logistics. Why does a product the size of a cigarette packet need to be contained in a something that’s almost as big as a shoebox? Even allowing for a mains transformer and software on a compact disc (neither of which are included with modern iPods) it appears that Apple were shipping a substantial amount of fresh air around the world.

But it’s Apple air, and who wouldn’t want to pay for that?


2 thoughts on “What has packaging ever done for us?

  1. Pingback: The Theory of Waste Prevention | Capacify

  2. Pingback: A Logistically Challenged Holiday | Capacify

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