/ Food & Drink, Health, Shopping

Wrap rage – the everyday packaging that hurts to open

Man opening jar

You’d complain loudly if you bought a new car and had to fight to get the door open, so why do we have to put up with difficult-to-open everyday packaging?

Three quarters of us think that everyday packaging is harder to open than it needs to be. One Which? member told us:

‘Recently I found my camera card was full and bought a spare. I found that I could not open it without scissors so bought a pair from WH Smith. I then found that I could not get the scissors out of their packaging because of a nylon cable tie. An electrician lent me a pair of cutters so that I could remove the scissors and then unpack the memory card.’

It’s a story we’ve heard before on Which? Conversation, from Harry:

‘On the way to an event, I remembered I had forgotten to take the scissors. No problem, I thought, as there was a supermarket on the way. But at the checkout, it became clear that the only way I was going to be able to use them was to find another pair of scissors to open the packaging.’

But the struggle to get into household goods – from food to toiletries to medicines – has a more serious side, and some worrying implications for our health and wellbeing.

Some packs pose painful problems

According to our survey, four in ten people say they have hurt themselves while trying to open packaging in the last two years. That’s a staggering 25 million people if we scale that up to the UK population.

The biggest packaging offender for injuries is the tin can. If we applied our figures to the general population, that would mean more than one million people are going to their GP or A&E at least once in a two-year period, simply as a the result of opening a tin.

And moulded plastic packs claim nearly as many victims, as well as being the biggest cause of irritation, annoying over half of people.

We’re resorting to weaponry to fight our way into packs as well, with 89% using scissors, 66% knives, 8% using Stanley knives, 6% screwdrivers, and a worrying minority resorting to razor blades (4%) and hammers (2%). Here’s just one example of someone using a knife to get into a package, shared by a GP:

‘A patient came in requesting a substitute prescription for her eye drops. She’d ruined the first bottle while using a knife to try and get into it.’

The ingenious jam jar lid

We know that manufacturers have to serve many masters: packaging has to be sustainable (reducing materials used), safe and secure, and keep our food fresh and intact in transit and on the shelves. Perhaps it’s no wonder that accessibility has taken a while to get to the top of their ‘to do’ list.

Some manufacturers have got it right – Duerr’s jam jar lid is ingenious. You twist an outer ring which loosens and pushes the fixed central panel away, breaking the seal. Whereas more traditional jars need strength to open them.

But I believe that packaging matters. It’s stopping a quarter of people from eating what they want, and a quarter of people regularly need help to open packaging. And more and more of us are living alone. For example, one older lady told me she has to wait for the postman to open jars and tins for her.

Manufacturers may soon have help to commit to easier packaging, regardless of the cost. An EU testing method was launched in 2011 to help manufacturers striving to improve packaging accessibility, using test panels of older people. This should become a British standard in 2014.

Do you agree that inaccessible packaging is an important issue, or do you think it’s just an occupational hazard?

Comments

I mentioned the brilliant design of the lid on Duerr’s preserves in the Conversation on inaccessible packaging. It would be good if the company allowed others to copy this design, but I guess it is patented.

Companies that design products that make our life easier should win design awards, but these seem to be given for aesthetic considerations rather than for practicality.

A few years ago my mum even wrote to Duerr to thank them for their very user friendly lids

Alaster Yoxall says:
20 August 2013

The big problem is the cost sadly. Unfourtunately the Duerrs lid cost 50% more than a standard lid and many brand owners can’t afford to take the hit as retailers won’t let them increase it. Duerr’s were quite brave going for it. That said i don’t understand why they haven’t made more of it to be honest. When I spoke to them they said it had reinforced their brand but had made people switch brands.

Thanks for this insight, Alaster. I wonder how much extra the lid costs.

Though I have little problem with conventional lids, I a now buy Duerr products more frequently, because I like the design of the lid. I also buy cartons of UHT milk that have screw caps rather than a peel off strip, simply because it is so easy to spill milk with the latter design.

Alaster Yoxall says:
20 August 2013

Hiya,

Pence. But when you make millions and millions it all adds up. People often say they will pay more for stuff but people are very brand loyal. Even though I was involved with it I have to say it’s a great product 🙂

I used to buy various brands of ginger preserve, depending on price. Now I buy Duerrs unless there is an offer on other brands, simply because of the lid. Thank your for your efforts and causing me to spend pence more. 🙂 At the other end of the scale, I will pay a lot more for Apple computers because I like the operating system and my experience of very good reliability.

Nutcrackers that crack the shell without damaging the nut or can be used by those with weak hands are other examples of great design.

With people living longer, we need to start thinking about good design of everyday products.

My poor “old” father is now forced to use a pair of pliers to get into some of the bottles of medicine he has, as he can’t grip the very small plastic tag which you need to pull to free the lid up and this is after several years of getting bottles he could open.

When they queried this with the manufacturer, they were told it was to make the bottle child proof. Yet it now seems old age pensioner proof too. 🙁

I agree, William. My mother had severe arthritis and struggled with packaging. Many children can defeat ‘child proof’ caps that make life difficult for elderly people.

Perhaps we should all take your mum’s approach and send compliments to those manufacturers that try to help us. It might not take long. 🙂

Alan says:
20 August 2013

The only problem with tin cans is when they are not opened carefully or with the right tool. They have, after all, been around for just a little while. On the other hand, these shrunk wrapped hard plastic packages are a nightmare, both logistically in getting into them and often environmentally in disposal.

Alaster Yoxall says:
20 August 2013

Hiya Alan,

I once had to use coat hanger to get into a plastic clamshell. Almost dislocated my arm! Broke the coat hanger…..

Alan

Try using a small retractable knife with a sharp blade and set it so that only 1 mm of the blade protrudes. I find this works well for tough plastic packaging, with little risk of damaging myself or the contents. Manufacturers use this packaging to prevent people stealing the contents from shop display, to ensure that small parts cannot fall out of the package, and to protect the product from damage if dropped or otherwise mistreated.

Alaster

I now understand why shops keep hold of coat hangers these days. They would not want anyone to hurt themselves. 🙂

Alaster Yoxall says:
20 August 2013

Hiya,

Yes the main reason for clamshells is protection and resistance to theft. However, a quick trip into certain supermarkets will show you how ineffective it is as theft deterrent….

One product which occasionally proves difficult to access, is the rectangular corned beef tin. The opener, provided, will engage with the tab, but the sliver of weakened case will often taper off and fail to complete the circuit. The rectangular shape of the tin may not accommodate an average tin opener, and you are reduced to using knives or scissors to complete the task.

I know that the rectangular tin has been in use for many years, but the failure of the key opener appears to be a more frequent occurrence.

Hua Dong says:
21 August 2013

We are used to resort to tools (scissors or knife) to open clamshells; when tools are readily available, opening the packaging does not seem to be difficult. But what if there is no tool, and you desperately want to access the product? I recently bought an power adapter (in clamshell) when I stayed in a hotel in the USA, there was no way that I could open the packaging by myself. Frustration! Why such a typical scenario was not considered by the packaging developers?

Alaster Yoxall says:
24 August 2013

I once had to use a metal screw cap shampoo in a hotel. Wet and soapy hands meant I couldn’t get in it. Impossible.

An interesting aspect of hotel bathroom packages is that the writing is so small that it is difficult to read particularly when one is already in the shower or bath. I now have to resort to pre-reading the label with my glasses on, strategically placing them,before use as the packages are so similar.
Why don’t the suppliers use larger letters or colour code them.

Maybe someone could a collection of tools for tackling difficult packaging – a modern day equivalent of the Swiss Army penknife.

Anorak says:
21 August 2013

Among the worst offenders are the “child proof” screw caps found on household cleaners, DIY painting liquids etc. They are intensely irritating, often require considerable finger force to release, and sometimes jam, requiring potentially dangerous levering off with a screwdriver. They are not child proof anyway, most kids have the savvy and finger strength to open them! Older people can find them a real problem. Can someone start a campaign to abolish them?

Alaster Yoxall says:
24 August 2013

They’re child proof as far as the test protocol goes. How good the test protocol is is another matter. My colleague Laura Bix at MSU argues that it’s actually unethical as it doesn’t consider older frail adults (otherwise the pack would fail!).
Many older adults decant the medicines. Blister packs (unit-dose) medicines aren’t even child resistant.

Hilary Sutcliffe says:
21 August 2013

YES! I am sure that packaging is unnecessary, let alone unsustainable. Could we have a packaging black list?

Alaster Yoxall says:
22 August 2013

Hiya Hilary,

It may often feel that there is too much packaging but packaging has several roles. It has to protect and preserve your food as well as help you store it. Half the World’s food is thrown away and a big reason is that the packaging and supply chains don’t exist. You may hate a cucumber wrapped in celophane but it lasts a lot longer than one that isn’t. Also over 70% of packaging isrecycled and there are examples of ‘closed-loop’ recycling schemes whereby the packaging is 100%.
that said it isn’t perfect….

You are aware that you can get “special” bags or even gadgets that go in the fridge that will extend the life of fruit and veg. I would think that they’re better than a sealed bag where the contents can’t “breath”

Alaster Yoxall says:
24 August 2013

Hiya,

Yep. We use them all the time. But you get my point, the stuff still generally has to be stored, shipped, stored, shelved, stored etc. Packaging helps this happen. We can argue about how far stuff has to travel etc (it gets really complicated).

Wrapping cucumbers in plastic is not necessarily a good idea because it traps ethene produced by the ripening cucumbers. Ethene also accelerates ripening and production is enhanced when cucumbers are chilled. The overall effect is that cucumbers stored in plastic wrappers soon become over-ripened and soft when stored in the fridge.

I accept that packaging has an important role in protection of food, but other factors need to be taken into consideration too.

PS Ethene is commonly known by the old name ethylene and it is used commercially to accelerate ripening.

I meant to mention that it can be important to remove packaging when produce is stored in the fridge. This allows ethene and excess moisture to escape. William has the right idea.

I actually use a de-ioniser in the fridge, and have seem the results first hand. At the very worst it adds a couple of days that some fruit and veg stays fresh and at best it adds just over a week.

Maybe Which? could investigate these ? To see which ones are the better ones

Paul says:
21 August 2013

As a youngster I was told that wood glue created a stronger bond than the material it was sticking. It has occurred to me in the last year or so that the same argument now applies to cardboard. It never used to be so difficult to open a cardboard carton. On a packet of cereal it used to say ‘place finger under flap and slide from left to right’, nowadays you’re lucky to be able to open a cereal packet intact such that you can reinsert the tab to close it again. And now you need to collapse the used packet so your recycling box doesn’t fill up.

In complying with the manufacturer’s instructions I managed to cut my finger so often on the sharp edges of cereal box flaps [the results are virtually unnoticeable in the cranberry clusters] that I now always use the handle of a cereal spoon. This appears to be perfect for the function and I think the legend on the box-tops should recommend it. My Bisk-Wheetoes taste so much better without the sanguine supplement.

Raysalarf says:
24 August 2013

Tin cans, yes always have been a menace, and using tin openners one knows how to be careful.
The new ring pulls were a good improvement but even those are now getting to the stage of more dangerous than the ordinary tin. The force to pull the ring appears to have grown so one can cut or spill the beans in doing so. It might be the thickness/quality of the metal used who knows.
Packaging today, whether its corn flakes or batteries in a pack one needs a degree in how to open such things, yes there is a way with all of them but why would one need to read seperate instructions before proceeding. I suspect its all to do with with simple theft and if one looks at where these things are now made it doesnt take a lot of seducing of the reason why. Poor populace countries see these goods in front of them and the chance to make good is too great.

Julie Hunt says:
24 August 2013

I’ve cut myself on a ring pull can several times, and sometimes the ring comes off in trying to open it as its not strong enough to pull the lid off! – I then resort to a tin opener which doesn’t always work at this point! Lethal! I much prefer the old type of tin!

If you have a problem with the ring pull, you can always turn the can over and use a can opener on the base.

Ring-pulls are fine on drink cans with aluminium tops, but with steel food cans they are not as good and present a real challenge to elderly people.

Joanne Hodgson says:
24 August 2013

Jam jars – got that sorted out. I used to spend time over 3 or 4 days trying to open them with no luck, but found if I put some hot water into a measuring jug and then put the jam jar into the water upside down so the lid is just covered, leave it a while, the lid comes off – reasonably easily especially if you use rubber gloves or a cloth. Those who own an AGA can just put the jam jars upside down on the top of the AGA for a couple of hours and they then open.

Alaster Yoxall says:
24 August 2013

We once spoke to a lady who left them i the sunshine. Probably Ok for jam, not sure about mayonnaise….
And we shouldn’t have to. A tip from me. Use your left hand if you can and a rubber glove.

The difficulty of opening jars is that these are under vacuum, so that the lid is held against the rim of the jar, greatly increasing the twisting effort to remove the lid.

Piercing the lid with a sharp object makes removing the lid much easier, but this is risky, particularly if the weapon chosen is a sharp knife.

What is needed is a heavy duty of the spring loaded tool that diabetics use to draw a small drop of blood for testing. Do we have any developers who would take this on? If such a device is already produced, please let us know.

I long ago discovered that with vacuum packed jars, all you have to do is put a screwdriver or a teaspoon under the lid and lever it up slightly to let the air in, after which it unscrews easily.

This works fine on many jars, but needs a fair amount of force, Tosca. I do wish someone would produce a lid-stabber that could be used safely and easily by the elderly and disabled.

It does sometimes, you’re right, but there is a neat little plastic implement sold by Lakeland which does the trick without much forces at all.

Alaster Yoxall says:
25 August 2013

Hiya All,

We did some work on this a while back. There are a host of methods people use from hitting it to using hot water, a tea towel etc etc. We also tested the devices that you can buy, the rubber lasso etc. The best performing tool was the ‘spillnot’. It’s a moulded plastic tray with slots that sit the jar in.
As i said failing that, if you can use your left hand and a marigold that may also help.

James Spencer says:
24 August 2013

Opening a pack of biscuits, although there is usually a plastic string to help with opening the pack, the first half dozen or so biscuits are broken or completely crumbled. It is not easy to tell.

Crazy John says:
24 August 2013

I agree with most of the comments here with regard to tins. The most lethal I find are the tins of meats with the keys that remove a strip of metal leaving two razor sharp edges to pull apart in order to get to the contents. I also find tearing/opening those little packs of mayonnaise, tomato ketchup etc. hard, invariably I get covered with the contents of these packs! It’s amazing how much of the contents suddenly squirts out when I do manage to open it!

old kitkat says:
24 August 2013

Battery run tinopeners always say no sharp edges but one can slice cheese with the empty tin and one can easily cut oneself. Ring pulls and jam jars are now easy because I purchased from Temps L something called a ‘Handy Fish’. (I am 80 years old with arthritis.) I have gone back to a can opener with a winder, that leaves tins blunt, the lid is still sharp but obviously so, and so one takes care.

Sylvia says:
24 August 2013

I agree with all comments on jars and tins. The other culprit is hard plastic which is razor sharp after it is cut with scissors! Surely, in this day and age, we can purchase correct packaging. There are a wealth of suppliers out there who are willing to talk to the client and meet their exact needs.

Kayj says:
24 August 2013

Thanks for this campaign! Please keep the good work up! Although in my 50s I have developed a mild form of arthritis and without several gadgets at my disposal I would fail to break into or open many of today’s products. Products that require real hand strength with pressure I now simply avoid and find alternatives. However, I find those products that require me to cut across the shell wrapped item whilst trying to avoid it at the same time are a real menace and I rarely come away unscathed.

Nel, Edinburgh says:
24 August 2013

Ring pulls on tins are a nightmare. Some you have to pull so hard the pull comes off and then an old fashioned tin opener comes into play! There is also a great possibility that the user will cut themselves trying to pull the can open. Health and Safety issue ???

Tin cans are a nightmare. In fairness the problem is the tin openers. From cheap to expensive, they majority are made in China. They are generally made of inferior material. The drive cog in them is not up to the job for which they are designed, resulting in half-opened cans which we writhe at in frustration. I recently bought one not made in China, after much searching. In the days when such products were made in Sheffield this problem didn`t arise!

Doreen M S Nightingale says:
24 August 2013

Even small packages are hopeless for opening, eg a littlle bar suitable for children – however do they manage?: the plastic is too tough. Also dishwasher tablets sometimes, and lots of things like bars of chocolate which used to be so easy to tear open, but not so now. Some jars are easy, some unopenable: supposing you were entertaining and desperately wanted that particular ingredient? And how do old people manage with no-one around to call for help? It is rather a serious matter now and ought to be addressed. Glass jars are dangerous: I do call for help but am nervous in case the glass breaks in someone’s hands. Why should we have to buy gadgets.to help us? The manufacturers should test containers first but it hardly seems these days that anything is tested before going out.

Just complaining that people struggle with packaging is not enough, since these problems have existed for years, and I have seen little progress beyond a cleverly designed jam jar lid. We need some input from those who support those with disabilities. Information about the number of accidents due to packaging would be useful too.