A Totally Unnecessary Evil
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.
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.
Unilever 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:
“Packaging encloses the product. We simply couldn’t store powders and liquids without it.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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:
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:
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 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:
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.