NOTE – see updated version from May 28, 2008
Packaging is one of those things that most of us probably don’t think about a lot. That set of plastic, glass, paper, Styrofoam, cardboard, and polywhatever that contains and protects things we buy. I think of packaging in two categories — that which something is stored in and that which something is shipped in. I am sure that packaging experts have a much more sophisticated way of describing it but that is my simple way of categorizing it. I suppose we mostly take packaging for granted but I am beginning to think it is actually a profound topic.
I began thinking about packaging as something discrete some years ago. Strictly in the "something is contained in it" category. What initially got my attention was a cereal box that I found great difficulty in opening without destroying it and its subsequent ability to keep the cereal fresh. I have since taken it as a personal challenge to be able to open a cereal box with no resulting damage. This is a nontrivial challenge – maybe an art. If it is a science then I haven’t found the instructions anywhere. One starts by using a sharp knife with a long blade. You carefully slide the knife under the tab in the center of the top of the cereal box. Then you slice the material to one side while applying a slight upward pressure via the tab. Repeat for the other side. I give being able to do this without damaging the box top about 75% odds. You are now almost a third of the way through the task at hand. Now that you have freed up one of the flaps you have to free the other flap by tearing it from the side flaps. Completing this without damage is also about 75% odds if you are quite careful. You are now two thirds of the way to the cereal. Last comes opening the bag inside the box which actually contains the cereal. This is often the hardest part. If you grasp the two sides of the bag and pull very very carefully you have about a 50% chance of opening the bag without tearing it. After opening the main part of the bag you need to open the corners of the bag so the cereal can flow smoothly into your cereal bowl. Putting the collective probabilities together gives you a 50-50 chance at best of having an open cereal box that pours the contents smoothly and can be closed to protect freshness. Some packaging!
I could go on about jars that require a hammer to open, pill bottles that can only be opened by children, fresh fruit containers that have to be squeezed until they break to open, etc. etc. etc. I suspect those who suffer from arthritis of the fingers could make my examples seem trivial. But there is a much bigger packaging issue on the horizon.
The issue initially struck me when I had received my very first order from net.grocer (www.netgrocer.com). I ordered an assortment of salsa, condiments, and potato chips (I can never remember whether there is an E in potato either). An Australian newspaper wrote a front page story (business section) about how an Internet "visionary" had ordered potato chips on the Internet. The amazing part to me was not that the potato chips arrived unbroken but rather the packaging. I feel like I want to signal the future importance of "packaging" in the way the gentleman in "The Graduate" signalled the importance of "plastics" to Dustin Hoffman.
I opened the two large cardboard boxes and unpacked all the items. Everything exactly as ordered. I was quite pleased and proud of my e-commerce prowess (e-business hadn’t been invented yet) in walking the talk and acquiring all of my favorite goodies (especially potato chips). I was revelling in my predictions about how everybody would buy everything on the Net. Then I got a lump in my stomach. I looked at these two large cardboard boxes on my kitchen floor. And, the piles of polywhatever "worms" (many people call them "peanuts"; I call them "worms") that were all over the place. Some stuck to my hands, arms, and clothing. What was I to do? My wife would be home soon and she have a lot of questions about my plans to clean up the mess I had created in the kitchen. All the glory I felt about acquiring Tabasco and potato chips would be nothing compared to the wrath she would unleash about the mess if I didn’t get busy. No problem. I’ll just clean it up. All I have to do is separate all the various packaging materials into their respective categories, burst the cardboard boxes, put the "worms" into a bag so they don’t end up decorating our lawn, and then stow everything away in our recycling center. Shouldn’t take me more than a half hour. Let’s see — how much time did I save with my Net purchase anyway? Surely I am still way ahead.
Then there is the purchase of something really simple — say a cell phone. What is the ratio, on a volume basis, of the packaging material to the cell phone? 2 to 1? 5 to 1? 10 to 1? And then there are the "worms".
So, what is the answer to all this? I don’t claim to have all the answers but here is the view of one fellow traveler. First of all, shopping on the Net is here to stay and should be. It is more than great — in spite of the packaging. You can shop when you want. It is "Power to the People". I am confident that we will soon see the demise of web pages which say "Call us during our normal business hours of 9-5 Monday to Friday" or "Call 800-123-4567" when you are in Europe and can’t call an 800 #, or "Print this form and fax it to us". Beyond that web sites will surely soon enable us to establish fulfillment models where we can set up a schedule for things we just want to show up outside the garage door on a scheduled basis. Paper towels, a case of oil, printer paper, stockings, and of course potato chips. I envision receiving an email at some point from a web merchant saying "Mr. Patrick, we have been shipping you two bags of potato chips per week for quite some time. We have calculated that you could save considerably on your shipping cost if you were to up that to 12 bags per month instead. Click here if you would like us to modify your fulfillment model as suggested." But then still, there are the "worms".
Hopefully marketing will come to the rescue. Good marketing involves paying attention to the "end to end process", e.g., not just assuming that the job is getting the package to the customer but going the next step and helping the customer unwrap the package, get rid of the packaging material and start enjoying the merchandise that was delivered. There have been many new business models on the Net and I am confident we will see successful marketers keep uncovering more and more ways of satisfying their customers, by looking at possible annoyances, and solving them. We also need some breakthroughs in the packaging area. The fact is that more and more of what we buy and consume will just show up outside the garage door via package delivery companies. What will we do with all the "worms"? As people buy more and more on the Net will they get turned off by all the packaging materials they have to deal with? There is room for leadership here and breakthroughs are possible. I used to be so frustrated with opening the half gallon orange juice cartons. Did I say opening? I meant mutilating. Then along came International Paper with a breakthrough idea — the screw cap on the carton. Great! Now what we need is self destructing "worms" and instantly collapsable cardboard. I am no packaging expert but I am sure there are many creative people in that discipline who will figure this out. I hope so. The "worms" are really annoying.
Epilogue: The Glass is Half Full
In fact there are some very interesting things going on in the packaging arena. EcoFoam ( www.ecofoam.ca ) has an alternative to Styrofoam "peanuts" that need only be requested when ordering from a supplier. When you’re at this site, make sure to look under "loosefill." Another company that is attempting environmental as well as consumer-friendly void fill is Metabolix ( www.metabolix.com ). This company is developing dissolvable plastics made from two of our most easily attainable and renewable sources: Carbon Dioxide and Water! Look under "Technology Profile".
For materials other than starch peanuts, corporations like Sealed Air provide packaging solutions such as air cushions made from LDPE plastic, which only have to be deflated and can then be reused or recycled. Using these pouches, one mail-order fulfillment company (Heartland America) has increased packaging/shipping efficiency processes by 50%, and, in combination with a 3M-Matic case-taper, has saved $30,000 in labor last year. This usually reflects a reduction in cost to consumers in addition to the ease of use and disposal they experience with this system. (Packaging World, 04/99)
A second company that has discovered benefit in using alternative packaging materials is Bone Appetit, maker of gourmet pet treats. This manufacturer uses Sylvacurl (recyclable, biodegradable and reusable wood shavings) provided by Eastview Enterprises for bedding in gift baskets and void fill in corrugated shippers. Bone Appetit initially "chose Sylvacurl primarily for environmental reasons" citing, "our customers wouldn’t buy our product because we used EPS foam." The company has decided to stick to the decision after enjoying its savings of 15% over previous packing materials, parchment and EPS. (Packaging World, 01/99)
These are a few examples of technological innovation combined with customer service and consideration that are being introduced to the market and seem to have generally been well received. The next wave of engineers will prove to have more concern for environmental issues and packaging convenience as they move into the global market through on-line vending. Kudos, Mr.Patrick, for the challenge… We accept.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Brian Carpenter, Bill Sweeney, and Irving Wladawsky-Berger for their comments on my first draft of this Reflection. A special thanks goes to Sarah James, a package engineering intern at Nestle, for contributing the content of the Epilogue.