Marian Bantjes | Essays

Plastics: An Apoplexy

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.

Posted in: Business, Social Good

Comments [32]

Another way to save on the plastic.
When shopping at the supermarket, use the recently unpacked boxes for your groceries instead of plastic bags.
For more disturbing facts about plastic read "The World Without Us"
by Alan Weisman. There is a land mass of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Matthew Septimus

Bravo. It's frustrating and sickening to see how much moulded plastic is used to package household items, gifts, toys, etc. Much of it is used to prevent the removal of goods from their packaging in the store by shoplifters, but the application is far broader than this as well. The more that companies (and designers) adopt recyclable packaging, the more that consumers will recognise it as a clear and preferable alternative.
Tracey Grady

Let's Rethink The Paradigm of Polymerum Era. Thanx Marian
Peterson Ruiz

Great article Marian.

I agree with you 100%. I happen to have a tiny scar on my right hand from the botched, maniacal opening of a Sheryl Crow CD.

Two things to note: some products are packaged in clamshells to prevent shoplifting, i.e. the bigger the package, the harder it is to conceal under a sweater or down your pants. And bottles that contain plastic bands around the caps are there to prevent tampering. They are called "tamper evidence," and allows consumers to feel confident that what they are about to buy has not been opened and/or "sampled" by anyone. This became common in the 1980s after Tylenol packages were tainted with poison and several people died.

So, tragically, some of the extra packaging on the myriad products we buy is there to prevent humans from being...human. This in NO WAY excuses the waste, but in some cases (sadly) explains it.
debbie millman


I've often fantasized about beginning a consumer revolt. It'd go like this: Whenever we buy something in a shop, we would insist that he shopkeeper remove and dispose of (hopefully recycling) the excessive, difficult to remove, and unnecessary packaging. Once the shopkeepers realize both how much of their time they are wasting in this effort and how many resources are being wasted, perhaps they will start to demand better packaging from their products' manufacturers.
Rob Henning

Bulk groceries in your own big glass jars with metal lids are a beautiful, beautiful thing. And save $$ too.

I love this! I always feel this way too. Its more than a little surprising we haven't come farther on this with as much awareness as we have on the problems this causes. My 10-year-old recently did a school project on the plastic in the ocean and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. What is wrong with people? We can do so much better.
Jon Jorczak

i have been reading a blog written by a woman who is trying to live her life without platics, for health and environmental reasons. i was already on that path, but reading her blog and upping my efforts to refuse plastic have opened my eyes even more to the ubiquity and inescapability of plastic in our lives. if you're interested - http://plasticmanners.wordpress.com/
Jennie Morris

I was recently unpacking toys to give this Christmas and was amazed at the quantity of packaging and tie-down apparatus. At the core of this there is a long journey from China to consider. An artifact of our global consumerism.

I hear your concern and frustration. There are some obvious concerns and problems in the packaging industry and they are being addressed (and have been for some time now) in the retail market. Sustainability, less material and better product to package ratio are just a few of the issues. I work in packaging and deal with these as well as many other factors on a daily basis. Believe me when I say that your concerns as well as those of many others are heard by designers and all in our industry and we are working to achieve some very complex goals. So hang in there as we are working on it.
Chuck Miller

Maybe we should start by not purchasing the little AMAC plastic boxes espoused in this very website...

Designers are not going to change producer's behavior until consumer behavior changes.

Take Apple as an example. You just paid $500 for a nice new iPad. You know and accept that in a short amount of time it will have some scratches and blemishes as a result of use. But that moment when you open it up you want it to be perfect

For $500 you don't want it to come out of the box pre-scratched. So they cover the scratchable surfaces with plastic film.
Stephen Macklin

I recently spent a day in a store stockroom, unpacking housewares. Everything was wrapped in plastic... the candles were wrapped in plastic, then bubble-wrap, then put into a compartmentalized corrugated box. And all of that wasteful packaging isn't even seen by the consumer, its trashed before it hits the shelves. The reason behind so much plastic is essentially because everything we consume is coming from so far away, and in very large quantities. 12 candles shipped from china to a store in the US will have 100% more packaging than a candle bought down the street from a guy who makes them himself. Excessive packaging is just another reason to reduce personal consumption and shop locally when you can.

Awesome article, thanks.
Eamon Croghan

A friend and I ruminate on plastic packaging frequently. One really inane packaged item that gets to us----post-it notes! Really. This is a pad of paper already glued together that apparently needs to be wrapped individually in plastic and then bundled together with other individually wrapped plastic post-its and then wrapped all together in plastic?! This is just crazy people. How can we reach the 3M corp on this one?
Also, my friend runs a non-profit dedicated to educating people about plastic. Find them on Facebook/createplenty.

Thanks for posting.

This drives me absolutely crazy, too. Since seeing Chris Jordan at poptech (http://www.midwayjourney.com/ if you aren't familiar - brace yourself) I've been on a personal crusade to eliminate plastic waste from my life. It's nearly impossible.

Try it - I dare you - go a single day without disposing of a single plastic object. Awful. Relentless.
Jon Kolko

Stephen Macklin,

> Take Apple as an example. ...For $500 you don't want it to come out of the box pre-scratched.

I'm sorry, Stephen, I don't believe it. We've been buying gadgets for decades and this plastic-cling for surfaces has only appeared in about the past 10 years, and become an epidemic in, I would say, the past 5. I don't believe that the glass on my iPad or iMac can't survive shipping without the plastic peel. I particularly don't believe that the white power adapter for Macs also requires this protection. The amount of "damage" these things might incur without the peel is sure to be infintesimal. I lug my iPad all over the house and stuff it into bags (without a case) and rest cups on it. When it gets all fingerprinty I wipe it vigorously with a lens-cleaning cloth. It's fine. I simply cannot believe that products were arriving to consumers in such a state that the resulting outcry was addressed by the invention of a non-stick cling film. I DO believe that a non-stick cling film was developed and marketed to manufacturers to address a "problem" that was wholly imaginary.

marian bantjes

Excellent stuff Marian

Packaging does my head in. Only yesterday I bought a headset for Skype use. The packaging was that stiff transparent type of plastic.
It was near impossible to get into and to make matters worse had the word "OPEN" embossed on it with a series of arrows pointing to absolutely nothing!
There was now visible means of getting in to the damn thing and had to resort to hacking into it with scissors and in so doing doing risk slashing your wrists open with the now razor sharp open edges of the plastic.

How little old ladies get into some of this stuff is beyond me. GGGrrrrrrrrrr
Adrian Smith

Many plastics can be converted back into petroleum by
destructive distillation:

Sanatan Rai

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Marian. A related thing that bothers me to no end is the use of plastic bags in stores. You buy a single (plastic) bag of candy and at checkout, without even asking, the clerks give you a plastic bag to hold the plastic bag. At a supermarket, you're always given double bags because the bags are too flimsy to hold your groceries. Every piece of meat is given a separate bag and anything that could potentially leak. While I appreciate the concern, I always wanna say, no thanks. I usually bring home about 16 bags when I shop in the US. In my homecountry, Iceland, the same amount of groceries would fit into six. The bags are stronger, so there's no need for "double-bagging" and they don't repackage all the meat into separate bags. I've been learning to always say no to every non-essential bag.
Kári Emil Helgason



re: "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."

I don't understand either, but I can only assume most packaging, like other "consumer friendly" aspects of modern manufacturing (think UPC codes, club cards) advertised as being for our benefit, is NOT at all for our benefit or for us to understand, but rather for feeding and perpetuating a system of mass production & consumption.

Plastic packaging is the instant $ for the corporation, stock holders and the problem of our future generation.

I cringe to see my kids toys, not only come highly packaged with plastic, but the equally labor intensive way that all the parts are twisty tied to the cardboard. The amount of time spent to remove the thingys from the ties was time labor intensive! I used to save them out of guilt and with the hopes of using them as an art project or use as they are: twisty ties. Of course, I became a hoarder and a bad one at that.

I still own a large industrial garbage bag of plastic casings that used to enclose the now donated plastic figures and plastic monsters.

Because I had to move... I had to finally deal with my hoarding issue. Many a things went to non-profit thrift shop. Very positive. But I still have the plastic casements. 2011: I will be framing them. I will send you a pic. or one if you like...

Also, regarding the newness of the item bought...these "new" and "necessary" gadgets are designed to break down to make way for "newer" and "more necessary" gadgets.

Garbage is Profit... whether it goes into a landfill or a thrift shop. One big difference is reusing is the new recycling but regarding gadgets?....

P.S. In order to recycle (?) all the plastic toys I had to remove all the batteries installed in them... the openings where all screwed in. I am not even sure if I succeeded in recycling them.

now we are talking !
Alicia Lee Wade

I have a general/small grocery store in the Philippines that doesn't use plastic bags nor bottles for anything. Retailers have a part in this too. It takes a lot of patience/meetings with suppliers, not to mention a lot of problem solving in inventory management and display. Without legislation against plastic, retailers need to design plastic out of their operations if they can.

Makes for a beautiful store, though.

I read something (can't remember where), which talked about plastic being to our civilization what lead was to the Roman empire and it's demise..
Candy Spender

Point made. But, like the packaging you're writing then ranting about, your words and scenes become over used. Exactly like your hated packaging. Ironic really. Brevity in words, brevity in wrapping would be simpler. And please take care with an obsession such as this.

Those that dislike all the plastic in our everyday lives will appreciate the blog my plastic free life http://myplasticfreelife.com/

One of the first projects I worked on as a trainee folding carton designer was for a palmtop computer to be sold duty-free on aeroplanes. We presented our client with a small carton and fitment containing no plastic elements and minimal glue that adequately protected the product, provided plenty of room for branding and had an ingenious construction. I was then disappointed to discover the client had rejected this in favour of an oversized carton containing a plastic vacform that in no way outperformed our original offering, (other than in terms of perceived value).

I wish I could say that things have changed in the intervening 13 years however I still face daily battles with clients insisting on plastic elements incorporated into oversized cartons despite a more environmentally responsible option being available. Only a handful of our clients have truly embraced recycled/recyclable packaging so far.

I'll be interested to see what effect customer preferences will have on manufacturers' attitudes to plastic packaging. Some may choose to follow the eco route as part of a cynical marketing ploy, (but who cares why they do it, if they do it). Others will only do it in response to legislation or if customers simply stop buying plastic packaged products.

Marian -

I wasn't saying it was right. I was just pointing out the reality.

If a consumer pays $500 for an iPad or $400 for Dell they want it to be perfect when they open it. That expectation is there and until it goes away the plastic will be there too.
Stephen Macklin

Clear plastic packaging is the branding mark of the ok, the average, the 'it's good enough for me'. Being wrapped in clear plastic differentiates a £2 average-quality spatula from a 50p 'Value' one that are sold with stickers or other poorly-designed minimal packaging -- especially when you'd have a hard time differentiating the two based on the product design. It makes the average customer think that the £2 version will last longer and perform better than the 50p version.

They don't care that there's a top-of-the-line custom-modelled spatula with beautifully designed, easily recyclable cardboard packing, as they don't want to -- or can't afford to -- pay £4 for it. Or they think that the clear plastic wrap is better, as it implies the suburban dream of bacteria-free cleanliness.

If we want companies to dispose of all this pointless plastic packaging, we need to change the average consumer's belief that this is what they want from what they buy. And that's the really difficult part.

(I'm talking from a UK supermarket perspective here. Guessing it might not apply in other countries)

The same is kinda true for Apple products, but here it's a tech-luxury thing. It's not that it may or may not actually protect a monitor adapter from a smudge -- it's that the it gives the purchaser the impression that Apple has taken pride in its products. How many product reviews have we read that praise Apple's attention to detail...
Neil Bennett

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