Packaging fails (and some successes)

I’ll start this post with some of the things I consider to be poor packaging examples. Because I seem to be more aware of these than the good ones (these pictures were taken over the past few years). But underway I’m going to look at some other aspects of Norwegian packaging, handling of packaged products and disposal of packaging.

Dumb Packaging(?) 

I have been told that the packaging industry for fresh food products is really a positive thing to ensure longer shelf life. And whilst I agree that that may well be the case for certain things like cut herbs or strawberries, there has to be some limit to how far these benefits can stretch.

In Norway, it is very common to find onions sold in plastic netting – I can only assume to avoid the issue of onion skin going everywhere. Many of the larger shops will also have a shelf with loose onions for sale, to keep anti-packaging customers happy too perhaps. But Coop for a little while tried selling pre-peeled onions! Wrapped up in pairs with glad wrap on a polystyrene tray! Thankfully this idea was short-lived. Presumably no customers thought it was a smart idea since it disappeared quite quickly. Onions really last very well compared to most vegetables so removing their natural protection turned out to be a poor seller.

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On my first ever trip to Europe, I landed in the Netherlands and became shocked by the presence of shrink-wrapped individual carrots! The Dutch are perhaps even more keen on using plastic wrapping than the Norwegians. Carrots, rather like onions, last relatively well compared to many other vegetables. It may well be that they last better in plastic, but I suspect that fresh products’ supply chains are determined by the weakest link – or the shortest lived product they sell – like strawberries rather than by onions or carrots. So improving the shelf life of these may help them to have the flexibility of providing bulk products whenever space is available in the delivery vehicles, but ultimately there will still be trucks driving around delivering items with much shorter shelf lives in the meantime.

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Packaging around fruits and vegetables may well have their benefits, but there are certainly examples where they have a detrimental effect on saleability. Such as for netted mandarins. If one or two out of 15 mandarins in a bag have started going mouldy, the majority of customers will not touch the bag. However if the mandarins are sold loose, then only the bad mandarins will not sell, whilst the other 13 will.

But it must be said that I haven’t dug very deep into the story with packaged fresh products, so I am just comparing my experiences of lots of plastic in Europe with the comparatively little plastic I saw in Australia growing up.

Smart packaging

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The picture above shows washing detergent refill liquid. This actually has a positive and negative side. Positive first: it’s a very thin packaging that allows you to refill your existing spray bottle. 80% less plastic. Great.

The negative: it’s a dillute solution, already mixed with water. They of course also sell concentrated Zalo in the shops, but then it doesn’t explicitly say that you can fill the spray bottle with this stuff and top up 80% of the volume with water at home. Some people may do this, but the producer is shipping around 80% of the refill weight unnecessarily to ensure you have a ready-to-go washing fluid.

There are some better examples which don’t transport around lots of unnecessary water thankfully like some for hand soap.

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New example of well designed packaging: jam jars with easy to open lids. The centre and rim are free to rotate independently of each other, meaning the sticky jam won’t stop you from opening the jar to the same extent as with a regular lid. Very clever trade-marked design now adopted by many companies selling jarred products.

And my favourite: temperature sensitive labelling on fish and meat products to show the ‘real’ expiry date (ink disappears faster if exposed to higher than recommended temperatures). Click to read more about the prize-winning labelling (in Norwegian). The company behind the shelf life indicator has moved into international markets after their early successes in 2015.

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Unnecessary packaging (AND product!)

Not quite related to packaging so much as marketing is the case below: fishing towels. There is no benefit of a fishing towel compared to a kitchen towel, a microfibre cloth or an old bath towel. It just says ‘fishing’ on it. But most people who are interested in fishing can already find such a product lying at home without too much difficulty. It is sad to think that some customers believe they may need a fishing towel simply because it is marketed this way. Over consumption patterns pushed by the producers.

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This is another example. Freia produces chocolate and cocoa powder in Norway. I found these three boxes in my cupboard. It may well be that the two baking cocoa powders are simply redesigned packaging, but the rightmost product is absolutely the same thing, in a different guise. We already have the baking cocoa powder, and now we need the drinking ‘original cocoa powder’ for making hot chocolate – even though this could be done with the other product. Selling you two boxes of cocoa when you only need one.

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Transportation of online order packages (or other parcels)

It’s no secret that more and more consumers are buying things online. I have done this previously but have moved away from online shopping in more recent time after having watched the excellent documentary Inequality for All. I found a version on youtube with Greek subtitles, maybe it still works for you too. The result of online packaging has been something of a saviour to the otherwise declining outlook of state owned postal services everywhere. Letters being sent are at all time lows but packaging has experienced a boom.

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But in Norway at least, even though the trend is very much towards 24-7 shopping online, I very much like the general absence of door-to-door delivery. Instead a notice comes from the postman to your mailbox (or sometimes an SMS/email) saying that you need to collect a package from your nearest Post-in-Shop. The postal office has co-located their services with supermarkets in order to extend opening hours without having full time employees themselves. The shops win by extending their attractiveness for nearby customers whilst not greatly expanding their staffing requirements since all employees can work in the shop when nothing is happening in their postal arm. Smart for the postal service, and not that much of a hassle for the consumer either (since the shop is usually a short walk away – and we could all do with a few more of those each day).

Here’s my last package collection run. Managed to fit on the bike without too much hassle. At least if one has a small rack or a backpack.

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Disposing of packaging

Many cities in Europe have good systems in place for recycling. Trondheim has a reasonable system too with recycling of soft & hard plastics, paper & cardboard and glass & metal in three separate collection systems. Drink bottles from many producers participate in a bottle return scheme at supermarkets. Shops that sell electronic goods are required to take in broken electrical products to ensure the appropriate recycling and disposal of these parts. Batteries and light bulbs are collected in a similar fashion.

And yet my university NTNU has gradually moved away from providing recycling. The pictures below are chronological from top left. When I arrived in 2014, it was not too difficult to find general waste, plastic and paper recycling along major thoroughfares in the university. The pictured recycling station in the top left is still there, but many others have been modified. Many of them look like the image to the right. Downsized from before (means more frequent trips from cleaning staff to empty them – not a smart economic move there). And then replacing plastic recycling with the bottle return system (each bottle will give a user 1 or 2.5 kroner back upon return at a supermarket). So plastic recycling is being phased out in favour of revenue generating bottles. The last image on the bottom left shows what seems to have happened at a selection of these rubbish collection points. The bottle return system is disappeared (maybe it got stolen – it has value after all?). Or they figured out that students don’t give their bottles to the university – preferring to collect the money themselves.

All in all, it’s a pretty terrible development for the university to retract the few recycling services it had for plastics and move towards the bottle collection system instead. Downsizing of bins is also not a great idea. And then glass and metal is not collected anywhere on campus, even though it’s far from uncommon for there to be bottles or cans consumed on campus (there are students on campus too remember!).


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