And furthermore: It’s a wrap . . .and a box and a plastic clamshell and a giant pain

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Ever notice how much time we spend trying to get at what’s inside?

Packaging is big, big business in our culture. It can also be a frustrating and bemusing business.

There is an herbal tea that is favored in our household. It gives great pleasure . . . that is until the day arrives to open a new box. Then it brings gnashing of teeth and much frustration.

The angst begins with the cellophane wrapper. It is largely unnecessary, and it is the bane of anyone trying to dislodge it, but the manufacturers must get it by the carload, because they use it liberally.

Aided and abetted by static electricity, cellophane clings to anything and everything it touches. If you are lucky enough to peel it away from the container (usually in small pieces), just try to get it off your hand. Nearly impossible.

The battle with the tea doesn’t end there, though. The box itself is difficult to penetrate, and once that is accomplished the tea bags inside are found to be nestled in a kind of paper nest that is sealed together at the top. More work.

The final challenge is encountered when you attempt to take out a bag to plop into your morning cup. They have no strings and come two to a strip with only an indentation between them to suggest a seam. Separating them sometimes results in tearing one or both bags, and then it’s loose teatime.

There is no shortage of other examples of packaging that serves as a larger barrier than it needs to be. Yes, we have progressed light years from the days when our forebears fished pickles out of an unsanitary barrel in the general store with their fingers. Also, safety concerns make it necessary to ensure that over-the-counter medicines are tamper proof. Yet, there are many extreme and often puzzling contemporary packaging practices that are enough to frustrate a saint.

Why, for instance, do many types of cookies and ice cream novelty treats come in boxes which have a perforated strip that you pull to open, but when you do so it only releases one edge of the flap? Instead of providing access to the contents, it merely allows you to bend down the end of the box and peek inside. There isn’t even room to fit your fingers in and take anything out. Hence you have to rip open the box and render it impossible to re-seal. Why? Only the geniuses that devise these receptacles know for sure.

Food containers like these, it seems, have a special place all their own in the packaging universe. For instance, take a look at the plastic apple sauce jars in the supermarket these days. They come with curves and bumps that create recessed channels around the cylindrical shape of the container. The jars have two of these troughs that encircle the circumference, one at the neck and one at the bottom. Try as you may and try as you might, you can’t get all the applesauce out of these spaces.

Could the design have an ulterior purpose similar to the too tall peanut butter jars that make it hard to get a knife all the way to the bottom? If enough consumers can’t get all of the contents out, eventually, over time multiplied by huge numbers of customers, there will be more sales of peanut butter and applesauce.

Next, let’s consider the so-called plastic clamshell wrapping that encases electronic items. Made to resist easy penetration, it can’t be cut with anything less formidable than tin shears or pruning clippers, and the front side is attached to the back with some kind of bonding agent that seems strong enough to hold floor-to-ceiling skyscraper windows in place. No doubt theft prevention is the motive for such impervious containers, but human organs being transported for transplantation probably travel in less secure repositories.

Other packaging is motivated by the intent to deceive. Cheap perfume famously comes in flocked boxes as fancy as fine brocade. The bottles are clever imitations of elegant glass resembling the sort of precious crystal vessels preferred by bling-worshiping pop celebrities like the Kardashians. Yet, the perfume itself is often as unsubtle as spoiled toilet water.

The place of honor in the pantheon of packaging impedimenta and frustration must belong, though, to the wrapping used in the jewel cases for compact discs and DVDs. The cellophane is especially given to tearing in thin and ragged strips so that it takes many efforts to remove it. Then it won’t shake free of your fingers.

However, the strip of material – what is that junk, anyway – that seals the edge where the cases open comes off in the tiniest bits imaginable. Dozens of attempts are required as the stubborn stuff shears into microscopic tads that litter your table or your sweater. They even make a special razor edged tool to cut through this last line of defense, but just try to find one when you need it.

Primarily an anti-theft device, these enclosures do some stealing of their own. They rob us of our patience and some momentary peace of mind.

Yes, in our daily commerce with the world, it is difficult to get at what’s inside, but perhaps we should look at it as good practice for getting inside the human heart. What takes more patience than that?