A Totally Unnecessary Evil

I brush my teeth twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Toothbrush-and-toothpaste

Nothing shocking there.

I buy my toothpaste from Morrisons.

Nothing shocking there either.

Once I buy this toothpaste I go home, take it to the bathroom, take it out of its box to put in the recycling bin and put the tube on the shelf next to the sink.

There is something a little bit odder about this…what on earth is the point in that box?

In 2010, the UK threw away 10.8 million tonnes of packaging (DEFRA, 2011). This is a huge amount of waste but according to DEFRA, 67% of it was recovered through recycling (ibid). Although this sounds impressive it still means that over 3 million tonnes went to landfill, the majority of which was plastic because only 24.1% of all plastic packaging was recyclable (ibid). There are clearly still some issues regarding the amount and types of waste we are producing.

colgate just box

To me, the cardboard box enclosing my toothpaste is totally pointless. I throw it away while I’m still unpacking my shopping. I never read it and I can’t use it for anything else. It’s also not the only example of totally unnecessary packaging I can think of. This week I have bought kiwis, lemons, apples and broccoli, all of which came in clear polythene wrapping, and in the case of the lemons and kiwis, a plastic tray.


None of this packaging was recyclable and all of the products were on sale next to identical items, which were not wrapped in anything whatsoever.

This is ludicrous, right?

Everyone knows that reducing the amount of natural resources we use is incredibly important and the data by DEFRA supports the need to do it. So why then, are companies adding totally unnecessary packaging to their products?

Or am I missing the point? Is there actually a purpose to this packaging that I’m failing to see?

To help answer this question it might be a good idea to find out what the point of packaging in general is. To do this I am going to turn to some experts in the field; Unilever.

Unilevunileverer have been packaging the products in our homes for many years. Brands such as Lynx, Dove, Pot Noodle, Simple, Domestos, Ben and Jerry’s, Wall’s and Vaseline have probably all found a place in our homes and each of them are owned by Unilever. They also all come in a variety of packaging.

In a report produced 2009, Unilever claim that their packaging occurs for 6 reasons:

1. Containment

“Packaging encloses the product. We simply couldn’t store powders and liquids without it.”

Fair enough.

2. Protection

condoms for packaging“Packaging keeps products safe and clean, avoiding the risk of contamination.  It also helps them stay fresh for longer. It means that goods arrive in shops and homes undamaged.”

Again, fair enough. I will never, ever, ever buy condoms that don’t come in a sealed packet.

3. Displaying information

 “Packaging is used to display vital information about ingredients, use, transport and disposal of products.”

No arguments from me here – I think this is totally appropriate.  Including a list of ingredients is also a legal requirement for many items such as pharmaceuticals, food and chemicals (BIS, 2009).

4. Portion control

“Packaging enables the amount of goods sold to be matched to the needs of different consumers. For example, in Europe the rise in single person households means there is more demand for smaller portions.”innocent NEW

This is an interesting point. Not all people know how much they should or shouldn’t eat, and food packaging can be a very useful guide.  It can also be helpful for illustrating ways for people to get their five daily portions of fruit or vegetables.

However, I would argue that in most cases packaging is rarely used for this purpose. Items such as bread, butter, milk, flour, pasta and rice to name but a few, all come with no obvious portion controls. People are encouraged to use their judgment and self-control to measure the portions of these products and they seem to do just fine.

5. Convenience

 “Packaging enables manufacturers to stack, handle and deliver products efficiently.”

This makes sense. It must be easier for companies to ship and stack a box of oranges than to move them individually.

6. Marketing

 “Packaging carries brand messages and makes products stand out on the shelf. The pack design is an important component of product marketing.”

This again is understandable. Many products look very similar and packaging can be crucial for making them appear unique. Packaging is also an area where advertisers can introduce some key psychological marketing techniques. One such technique is using packaging to determine the status of a brand  (Moran, 1980). Companies can make consumers perceive their brand as old-fashioned, contemporary, luxury or even good value just by manipulating the packaging.

Marketing clearly goes some of the way to help explain pointless packaging. For example, Higgins (1984) found that consumers often find food sold in foil more desirable that food without it. Higgins also discovered that foil can actual add value to a product and people are prepared to pay more for foods with it.

After 8 300G

I would also argue that another example is Nestle who use unnecessary packaging on their After Eight mints to make consumers percieve them as a luxury chocolate.


So where does the toothpaste cardboard box fit in?

Well in all honesty I’m still struggling to see what its purpose is – even if I use Unilever’s 6 purposes of packaging. Firstly, it definitely contains the toothpaste – no one can argue with that. But it’s not really necessary is it? I’m sure we can all agree that the toothpaste would survive perfectly well outside of its cardboard container.

The cardboard box does admittedly protect the tube because it’s the only way to tell that no one has tampered with the contents. However, selling products in tubes with tamper-proof seals is not a new concept. If these guys can do it then why can’t Colgate:

no more nails NEW

In terms of displaying information, I have read both the entire toothpaste box and the entire toothpaste tube (it’s not easy being an only child) and the information is identical. They both show the same ingredients, the same ‘how to use guide’ and the same pretty illustrations of plaque-free teeth.

Regarding portion sizing the cardboard box does inform me how much toothpaste I should use but in itself it is useless for helping me choose the right amount of paste to apply to my brush.

The cardboard box may well make it more convenient for the manufacturer and retailer. A box is certainly easier to stack than a loose tube but I’m 100% sure that a shelf could be designed in a way to eradicate this problem – I mean we managed to walk on the moon didn’t we? Also, it’s not as if Colgate don’t have experience in making boxless toothpaste:


Finally, the box does not appear to assist in marketing its contents. Please have a look at the picture below:

colgate NEW

Not a lot of disparity, right? In this incredibly dull game of spot the difference we can all agree that the only change is the word ‘NEW!’. For the life of me, I can’t see why this word couldn’t have been written on the tube and I see even less reason why the tube couldn’t have been sold alone. Perhaps, subconsiously we percieve toothpaste in a box as having a greater value. But I think its highly unlikely that anybody is going to stop brushing their teeth if all toothpaste brands stop selling their products in boxes.

The cardboard box still makes no sense. From an environmental point of view it is a dreadful waste of a valuable natural resource. And for those of you who think that this is a ridiculously small issue not worth bothering about, please note that almost everybody in the UK uses toothpaste (97%) (Mintel, 2012) and in 2010 the UK toothpaste industry was worth £391 million (Ibid).

The cardboard box also doesn’t make sense from a financial point of view. Why are companies increasing their costs through packaging that they don’t need?

I mean why don’t they try something a little like this?

save_paste photo

save_paste how to use

Save Paste is a new packaging design for toothpaste. It removes the fustration of getting the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube and it encourages recycling. Additionally, it is made from less material than a normal toothpaste tube (and box) and it can actually help companies reduce their shipping costs:

save_paste lorries

The Save Paste initiative shows that organisations can reduce their costs significantly (both environmentally and financially) if they just employ a little creative thinking. Exploring the purposes of packaging has also vindicated my belief that some packaging is utterly pointless. Selling bananas in shrink wrap with a polystyrene tray (see below) when they are grown with their own natural packaging is a ridiculous waste of resources and money.


The more you think about pointless packaging, the more examples of it you see. Cardboard sleeves on DVDs that are identical to the plastic cover, shrink wrap on cucumbers and even shoe boxes are all absolutely unnecessary.

But the question still remains – why do companies do it?

Well perhaps it’s down to a reason that no one should be surprised to hear; money. According to the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) (yes, that actually exists) the global packaging industry was worth $485 billion in 2004. The WPO also say that there are approximately 100,000 packaging manufacturers in operation which employ roughly 5 million people (2008). This is a significant figure and it goes some of the way to explain why so much packaging exists in the world. By reducing the amount of packaging it is probable that you will decrease a country’s GDP and increase their unemployment. This is never likely to be a popular choice so, as a result, very few governments are going to going to make it.

An unpopular choice or not I believe pointless packaging has to be eliminated. Researching this area has opened my eyes to a totally unnecessary form of waste and I am going to do all I can to try and avoid it. Taking steps like selecting my own carrots, rather than purchasing a ready collected bag is a good way to start. And from now on I am going to try my upmost to avoid buying toothpaste surrounded by a cardboard box, even if it means buying a tube with Spongebob Squarepants on it!

As always I would be delighted to hear your thoughts and in particular any examples of pointless packaging you have found.

Thanks for reading.


About Think Outside The Cliché

I write blogs that try to encourage people to think differently about their purchasing behaviour. I also write blogs that attempt to show companies that there are often other unconventional ways to conduct business. Whether you are a consumer or a business person there will be definitely be something interesting in my blogs for you. I hope you enjoy them and please remember I always, always appreciate constructive feedback.

11 responses to “A Totally Unnecessary Evil”

  1. jimmyg says :

    This is a great blog and the banana packaging is such a great example of waste. People really need to think more about issues like this. We are wasting so many resources just making things look fancy. I imagine that supermarkets and manufacturers assume that their packaging has to look optimal otherwise people will think that the product has been damaged. I know I’ve been guilty of reaching to the back of the shelf for an unblemished pack of this or that. It’s crazy but I’m sure people would reject the tubes if they had been squeezed. The paste tube is an amazing idea and as a result, almost destined to fail. The cardboard toothpaste box industry for one will probably not want to adapt that radically in case they see a reduction in sales. I’d like to see a manufacturer be bold for once and stick their neck out for a truly progressive idea.

  2. bryannosaurusrex says :

    Great blog. I have seen this so many times, with regards to so many products. I think toothpaste is a great example. So are shoes. Why do shoes come in boxes? I wouldn’t mind too much, but then they insist on putting the shoes, that’ are in a shoe box, into a bag. What’s the deal with that? I love that new toothpaste carton/tube/thingamabob. It’s so simple, plus you wouldn’t have all the wasted toothpaste no one can ever get out of the packet. My dear old granddad used to tell me as a child that waste was how companies made their money, and it was in the company’s interest to make it hard to consumer all of the product, or make it too easy. A simplistic view perhaps, but I think there could be some merit in it.

  3. pippabeston says :

    Very interesting and illuminating blog, about things I have never thought of before. And some very important points made. Your discussion about the reasons for wasteful packaging is comprehensive, so it was difficult to think of another. However, maybe some pre-packaged products just come down to affordance. This doesn’t really work for the toothpaste, but for things like packaged fruit and vegetables, maybe this is the case. These products may appeal to our sense of affordance as they may be perceived as easier to pick up and handle, or grab quickly. Instead of having to faff around choosing preferred veg. What are your thoughts?

  4. venividivulgo says :

    Great blog, greatly written!
    I am actually always buying that exact toothpaste. But your blog actually made me think about why. It might well be that it seems more luxurious, and the package seems bigger. Compared to other toothpastes, Colgate distinguishes itself from the rest.
    But if you think about two products, lets say grapes (not bananas, cause packaging bananas is ridiculous): if I see grapes in a plastic pack or on a big tray, the first thing I look at is the quality: are they undamaged and fresh (I am a very picky fruit-eater). If both look the same, I am more likely to buy the packaged version because I can be ensured that no hundred people before me have touched my fruits…
    So for some fruits, where you eat the peel with them, I do understand the packaging (the bananas are still ridiculous though).

    But what I am very annoyed with it the packaging of cosmetic products. I bought this facial creme (http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?start=117&num=10&hl=en&tbo=d&biw=1241&bih=545&tbm=isch&tbnid=BV8ChfwHseFLPM:&imgrefurl=http://www.organicsaustraliaonline.com.au/prod6937.htm&docid=PbslncPGyCcSxM&imgurl=http://www.organicsaustraliaonline.com.au/images/drorganic-royaljellynightcream.jpg&w=386&h=393&ei=3WnDUJGsBceo0AXCxoCwAw&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=577&sig=103802837494136756034&page=5&tbnh=159&tbnw=155&ndsp=31&ved=1t:429,r:26,s:100,i:82&tx=43&ty=80) and it looked super big, but once you get home, it is a disappointment when you have to fish the tiny product out of the big box.

    I doubt that companies will ever change their “packaging-behaviour” as long as consumers (like me) see packaged products as more luxurious and pay for the wasteful packaging. And I will also still prefer packaged fruit, but I will definitely join you on the Spongebob Squarepants toothpaste!

  5. greenConsuming says :

    One just have to go to the supermarket and see the thousand of products that come wrapped with pointless packaging that is just thrown away and could be saved. These bananas are just great example of it!
    But nowadays the “evil” of package has a new friend: If to the original packaging of the product we add a cardboard box and some protection, what do we have? This is called “online shopping”!

    Just a funny example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonlucas/1341117227/

  6. annapritchard2012 says :

    It is a big shame that we are wasting so much resources and money on such a useless commodity. You would would have thought that manufacturers would have taken any opportunity to reduces their costs and increase profit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Even though green marketing is seeing a good response in such a wide variety of products. I actually think it would be a great opportunity for a well established company to enter into green marketing. I say well established so that consumers doing think the quality of product won’t be compromised. Personally, I feel that companies wish to keep the boxes so the product is not accessible. With just a tube, its easy to compare size (and therefore value) but to a consumer on first glance, the bigger the box, bigger the value.

    With enough ‘hype’ I think this matter would change fairly soon. This seemed to be the case with Easter egg packaging where so much attention led to an Easter Egg Packaging report being created to examine the efforts to reduce packaging each year (I’ll attach an article from The Telegraph, 2012). We almost write them off, thinking their important and so its products that don’t need packaging that should get such attention. This is definitely not the case. Thank you for such an enlightening blog. : )


    • thinkoutsidethecliche says :

      Thank you for your comment and for you kind words.

      Also many thanks for the Easter Egg example that’s great. I found another article on this subject that you may be interested in:


      In this article you will find that on average just 38% of an Easter egg is chocolate and the rest is packaging. I find this an intriguing area because I can actually see why the companies do it. An Easter Egg is a gift but if you just give the chocolate egg it doesn’t really look like a very nice or thoughtful. Therefore they have used the packaging to make their eggs seem more luxurious and worthy of giving. Although I can see the logic, I totally support your argument that it is absolutely unnecessary packaging. There must be hundreds of other ways companies could wrap their gifts to make them look nice. How about just a very small 100% recyclable cardboard box?

  7. toby says :

    Awesome 🙂 I think pointless packaging can and will be eradicated if everyone adheres to it. Look at whaling!

    Here’s Rhod Gilbert’s opinion on pointless packaging that you’ll enjoy:

  8. crystal1014 says :

    Very interesting blog! I have thought the meaning of packaging before, but I have never noticed the pointless cardboard box outside the toothpaste. Undoubtedly, packaging using materials such as plastics will definitely lead to a large amount of waste. In my mind, there are certain products which need packaging for information or protection, such as medicine. However, it is also necessary for us to get rid of those meaningless boxes to reduce the waste. I appreciate the idea of new packaging design for toothpaste, and it seems practicable. I have thought of the shoe boxes as pointless, however, I found those boxes make the transportation convenient, so maybe we still need them. But in terms of those plastic tray for fruits or boxes for toothpaste, they are completely meaningless. We can try our best to buy more loose-packed products instead of packaged ones, meanwhile, creative ideas for packaging are always expected to change our way of life.

  9. theunlockedconsumer says :

    It is a very interesting blog and I totally agree with you regarding some packages that are unnecessary. However, there are certain cardboard box packages that have conditioned the consumer and maybe would be hard to sell the product without the package due to the fact that consumers may perceive the product as it has been used before and maybe a little unsanitary (At least it would happen to me if Colgate stop using the cardboard box package). In spite of this, the Bob Sponge Colgate may work on me, since I perceive that it has high quality, perhaps because the package material looks durable.
    In addition to the notes that you posted on the blog, I may comment that sometimes the packaging problem is not only an environmental issue, but also it may become a problem for people with physical disabilities. Hence, sometimes cardboard box packaging harms consumers who have physical problems in hands and wrists (arthritis) and decrease the purchase likelihood of this segment, only because a package can make their lifestyle worst.

  10. wangxuanjun says :

    An interesting blog. I think companies packaging their products for fresh, beauty. And I think the most important thing is that they will print the materials and elements in the products. For food such as chocolate and snacks, women often want to know how much calorie in them. Maybe companies just want to show all the information clearly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: