Thursday, 13 December 2012

Please Dispose of This Container Thoughtfully

As I sit here, struggling to open the cellophane wrapping around my lunch -- which looks so flimsy yet appears to have the tensile strength of steel (whatever that is) and to have been welded shut by some alien technology -- I realise that, far from sleigh-bells roasting on an open fire, my main association with this time of year is battling with packaging.

It is a modern curse, packaging.  It is almost impossible to buy anything unpackaged. Although fruit and vegetables are still an honourable exception (they come self-packaged, unlike soup), you will nonetheless see some fruit shrink-wrapped onto a foam tray in any supermarket, as if it were something rare and precious:  "Behold, other kings bring frankincense and myrhh, but I bring... a particularly large orange!"  Talking of oranges, I am deeply suspicious of those convenient net bags of just too few oranges: somewhere out the back is surely someone whose job it is to sort at least one fruit from the "almost rotten" crate into every bag, possibly the same psycho whose other tasks are to dent the cans of tomatoes and smash the top three biscuits in the pack.

I can understand the need.  Some substances, like sulphuric acid and Wotsits, needs special packaging to protect people from them. Other stuff needs protecting from people.  One reason I succumbed early on to the siren call of Amazon was the delight of receiving a pristine copy of a book, rather than having to choose the least-thumbed copy off the bookshop shelf.  Other stuff, like the aforementioned soup, really does need some kind of packaging to render it portable.  A handful of soup in a paper bag is no good to anyone.

But why do electrical accessories and children's toys, in particular, seem to be regarded as falling into all three categories, i.e. toxic, vulnerable, and soup-like?  Those full-spectrum-protection rigid-plastic hang-it-from-a-rack bubble-packs will be kicking around in the radioactive rubble, unopened and intact, for eons after any nuclear disaster.  You can imagine aliens arriving on earth, thousands of years from now, and mistaking these bubble-packed action figures for entombed earth-people, presumably of high status, given that they were buried along with their weapons and personal-care items (not to mention the occasional spare head).

This, my fellow Gaxians, is clearly a high-status Earthling,
buried with weapons and a companion ...

It all just leads to anger and frustration.  Somewhere, there is probably a Taxonomy of Packaging-Related Anger Syndromes.  Bubble-pack rage, styrofoam fury, sticky-tape tantrum, cling-film conniptions, video-wrap vexation, polythene-bag pique... I've known them all. The sunny pleasure of a new purchase can be eclipsed in seconds by any of the above syndromes, often in combination, when confronted by its packaging.  Just last week I broadcast an entire jar of instant coffee across the kitchen floor, struggling with a new designer jar-top.  It would have been too simple, wouldn't it, to make it screw off?  Instead, it required a subtle-but-firm, wrist-driven twist'n'lift.  Unfortunately, I gave it too much torque, and our floor looked like the aftermath of a barista's initiation rite.

It's not all bad, of course.  Now that there's a lot less hunting and smiting to do, it gives us men something useful to do around the house, in between putting up shelves.  "Here, little lady, let me undo that jar for you!"  "Stand back, kids, this bubble pack may explode!"  It's one of the last refuges of the macho male, though I suppose we'll always have bug smiting.

But back in the days of proper packaging, we all used to suffer the urge to keep well-made packaging, not drop it straight down the rubbish-chute to Hell.  It was the rational end of the string-saving spectrum.  Tobacco and biscuit tins, film canisters, ice-cream tubs, etc.  They were all so useful; entire sheds and larders could be fitted out with recycled packaging.  We still have four of those giant sweet jars that used to sit unreachably high on the sweet-shop shelves, those blue-remembered acid-drops and blackjacks.  They're brilliant for storing rice and pasta and pulses, except that those goods all come so packaged-up now, that there's no real need to decant them, and the beautiful jars stand empty.

... Whereas this low-status Earthling  companion has been decapitated.

But if a rigid bubble pack is packaging hell, then packaging heaven must be the artisanal packaging practices of those poets of the parcel, rare-book sellers.  If you have never bought anything mail-order from a proper bookseller, then you should do so immediately, simply to savour the way the activity summarized as "post and packing" can be raised to an art-form.  Forget your calligraphy, your Zen doodling, your tea ceremony!  A proper bookseller will encase a book in successive, carefully-folded layers of tissue paper, then a glassine envelope, then fine bubble-wrap, then a taped sandwich of corrugated card (with corrugations running in opposite directions for total rigidity), then more, coarser bubble-wrap, then brown paper, taped at all points of stress with duct tape...  Opening the parcel is like undressing a geisha kitted-out for combat, and must be done with appropriate ceremony, and a very sharp pair of scissors.

Which brings me to wrapping Christmas presents, possibly my least favourite chore EVER.  Have you ever had to wrap several asymmetrical, bulbous, bubble-packed child's toys on Christmas Eve, having already used most of the paper on the rationally-shaped items?  With the sellotape twisting onto itself like a flypaper, and the scissors hiding under the paper offcuts somewhere?  Of course you have.

Wrapping rage at midnight!  The quintessential Christmas experience, and enough to make even a bookseller rend his garments, if only he could get them out of the bloody rend-proof packaging.


Gavin McL said...

The tensile yield stress of average steel is 275 Newtons per millimetres squared (N/mm2). You can obtain steels with yield stresses of close to 500 N/mm2 if you want to pay.

Mike C. said...


Good to know! I'll let you know if I ever need any of the latter...


Paul Mc Cann said...

Ahh the days of old when the milliner wrapped up your purchase in brown paper and string.
My mother kept both. The brown paper was carefully folded and place under the cushions of the settee and the string wound onto and evergrowing ball.
And it wouldn't be the first time I stabbed myself with a knife trying to pierce that infernal hard plastic clam shell packaging.
And what with the heart tablets when I bleed , I really bleed,

Mike C. said...


"Clam shell packaging" -- that's a better word for it than "bubble pack".