‘How do I open this #%^ thing?’ : Packaging tests dexterity—and sanity

By Ted Blankenship | October 1, 2020

If you’ve been to the grocery store recently, you’ll notice that toilet paper is on the shelves again. So, buying it is now less of a problem than getting it out of the packaging it came in.
You may not like to admit it, but you know what I mean. You need the product and you confidently reach for it, but alas, there are but three sheets left. The package of new rolls is in the other bathroom. You get to the package and you can’t break through the folded plastic that seals the top. You punch a hole in the side of the package where the plastic is only one layer thick and the hole is too small to get a roll out.
This is called a dilemma. Or something less printable.
In the early 2000’s, “wrap rage” was coined to describe the feeling of frustration that impenetrable consumer packaging can inspire. For at least two years, Consumer Reports magazine bestowed “Oyster Awards” to recognize the worst offenders. A cordless phone, Barbie doll and electric toothbrush took dubious honors. The magazine seems to have dropped the awards, although packaging that would foil Houdini still fills store shelves everywhere.
My packaging battles begin early in the day when I try to find a way into my cereal. Apparently, the breakfast-food people don’t want nefarious folks sneaking Granola out of the box while it’s still on the grocer’s shelf.
So, they glue the lid down. In their defense, they provide a tab and a slit in the box top so that you can close the box after you have shaken out some cereal. Unfortunately, when you slip a knife blade under the top to break the glue loose, you usually destroy the tab.
But you have at least reached the cereal, haven’t you? No, you haven’t. The cereal is in a plastic sack that looks like you could pull it apart but you can’t. You have to cut a hole in it with the scissors—which you can’t find.
If you are totally defeated now, as I usually am, just make some toast—from bread that’s wrapped in two plastic bags, one of which is tied shut by a piece of plastic slit down its center and another bag inside that is apparently ironed shut or heat treated so it won’t come open in transit.
Other hard-to-open packages include the impenetrable plastic domes you see in the hardware stores and “clamshell” packaging that closes as tight as a bashful mollusk.
They were invented to show merchandise for sale, while preventing as much theft as possible. Earlier packaging made for easy pilfering of small objects such as nuts and bolts and tiny screws. To thwart magnetic stickers that trigger an alarm at a store’s door to the outside, thieves simply opened the package, took out a few items and left the package with its built-in alarm on the shelf.
Plastic dome packages save the merchants a lot of money but don’t do much for the sanity of consumers.
Packaging can cause not only annoyance, but bodily harm. In 2004, injuries resulting from plastic packaging sent more than 6,400 people to the emergency room, according to the U.S. Consumer Protection Commission. AARP recommends using a can opener or blunt-tipped scissors instead of a knife on plastic packaging. No word on how this works when the package isn’t shaped like a can. Commercial products specifically sold for opening such packaging “are not always effective,” according to AARP. (Wonder if these products are hard to get out of their own packages?). AARP goes on to note that even after plastic packages are open “there still may be sharp edges, so be careful.”
“Blister packs,” “shrink bands” and “induction seals” are just some of the tamper-resistant packaging that flummox users of over-the-counter drugs. Understanding the need for them doesn’t make them any easier to open.
Indeed, surveys show that practically everybody has experienced wrap rage in some form. There’s a niche industry in easier-to-access packaging, but it remains just that.
Joyce Wagner of Bel Aire has had her packaging problems.
“Oh, my gosh, yes,” she said. “I bought one of those plastic boxes to store things in. The problem was I couldn’t get the lid off, so I couldn’t store much in it.”
She tried a knife, then scissors, then both together, and it wouldn’t budge.
“I finally had to call my daughter, and we finally got it off with a screwdriver.”
Dana Gythiel, who lives a few blocks away from our house in Bel Aire, drove by to show me her packaging problem. She uses tiny green flossing picks that come in a plastic package that shows what looks like about 100 of the plastic picks that have a small length of flossing thread stretched across two prongs.
In the bottom of the package is a plastic box housing a smaller number of picks designed for travel. The larger plastic container has to be destroyed to get at the picks which often fly off in all directions. Getting the box open from the pasteboard bottom is thwarted by the travel box.
While she was pointing out the problems, she noticed a perforation in the pasteboard bottom. She pushed on it and the package magically opened. So, in showing me how it wouldn’t open, she discovered a way to open it.
Jackie Burdorff, a resident, with her husband Bob, of the Catholic Care independent living area in Bel Aire, said she got an email that prompted her to think about this:
“Why do eggs come in flimsy styrofoam packages, and batteries in a container that you can only open with a chainsaw?”
And, that works only if you are able to extract the saw from its crate.
Connie Schlatter, a neighbor who lives a few blocks from our house in Bel Aire, said she wonders whether people own guns mostly to shoot the tops off of bottles.
“My problem,” she said, “is the toilet bowl cleaners with caps you have to squeeze and turn at the same time.”
Mouthwash bottles have similar lids. It’s like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, but more difficult.
The packaging people don’t do us any favors when it comes to labels either. I have glaucoma, a disease if untreated can lead to blindness. I keep it under control with an assortment of eye drops, one of which is Latanoprost Ophthalmic solution. It comes in a tiny bottle with very tiny type on the label. I try to keep the box it comes in for refills but sometimes forget and have to read the information off of the bottle. I keep a magnifying glass handy for this task. You’d think the drug companies would label medicine for people with eye problems with information large enough to see.
We probably need to talk about canned goods that come with a metal ring to pull up and toward you to get the lid off.
In my experience, they cut your finger before they will come off. I keep a wooden stirring spoon in a cabinet drawer to open these cans without losing a digit or two. Simply insert the handle into the metal ring and pry up. The lid will come off, hopefully before the spoon handle breaks or the contents fly out onto the floor.
So far, trick-or-treat candy hasn’t been sold in unopenable packages. No telling what kind of tricks the kids would play on us if that ever happened.
Ted Blankenship is the author of “It’s Not Serious,” a 2017 collection of his columns for The Active Age.