New York Times – 1 June 2011
But the maddening — and nearly impenetrable — plastic packaging known as clamshells could become a welcome casualty of the difficult economy. High oil prices have manufacturers and big retailers reconsidering the use of so much plastic, and some are aggressively looking for cheaper substitutes.
“With the instability in petroleum-based materials, people said, ‘We need an alternative to the clamshell,’ ” said Jeff Kellogg, vice president of consumer electronics and security packaging at the packaging company MeadWestvaco.Companies are scuttling plastic of all kind wherever they can.Target has removed the plastic lids from its Archer Farms yogurts, has redesigned packages for some light bulbs to eliminate plastic, and is selling socks held together by paper bands rather than in plastic bags.Wal-Mart, which has pledged to reduce its packaging by 5 percent between 2008 and 2013, has pushed suppliers to concentrate laundry detergent so it can be sold in smaller containers, and made round hydrogen peroxide bottles into square ones to cut down on plastic use.At Home Depot, Husky tools are going from clamshell to paperboard packaging, and EcoSmart LED bulbs are about to be sold in a corrugated box, rather than a larger plastic case.“Most of our manufacturers have been working on this,” said Craig Menear, the head of merchandising at Home Depot. “We’ve certainly been encouraging them.”Shoppers have long complained that clamshells are a literal pain, and environmentalists have blasted them as wasteful. To save money and address complaints, retailers and manufacturers started minimizing packaging in the e-commerce sphere a few years ago. Amazon, for example, unveiled a “frustration-free packaging” initiative in 2008 intended to defuse wrap rage and be more eco-friendly. Other retailers have also been looking for ways to improve the customer’s unpacking experience.“As a guy in packaging, I get all the questions — there’s nothing worse than going to a cocktail party where someone’s asking why they can’t get into their stuff,” said Ronald Sasine, the senior director of packaging procurement at Wal-Mart. “I’ve heard over the years, ‘How come I need a knife to get into my knife?’ ‘How come I need a pair of scissors to get into my kids’ birthday present?’ ”But reducing packaging is more complicated in physical stores. The packaging has to sell the product, whether with explanatory text, bright colors or catchy graphics. And it has to deter shoplifters. Retailers lost about 1.44 percent of sales to theft in 2009, the latest numbers available, according to the National Retail Federation.“Clamshells actually served that purpose really well for the last 20 or 30 years,” Mr. Kellogg said. Then, petroleum prices rose, first in 2008 and again this year, so the cost of producing clamshells and other plastic packages, which are petroleum-based, shot up.“Plastic packaging is a byproduct of a byproduct, and we don’t represent enough volume to counteract the industry,” Mr. Sasine said. “We get dictated by things like petroleum pricing, natural gas pricing, home heating oil.”And during and after the recession, as retailers’ sales dropped, stores started looking to cut costs in new and imaginative ways.With the interest in alternatives to so much plastic, MeadWestvaco took a tamper-evident cardboard sheet it originally supplied for pharmaceutical trials, added a clear laminate that prevented tearing, and stuck two sheets of the cardboard together. It put a cutout in the middle, and added a plastic bubble fit to a specific product, like a Swiss Army knife or a Kodak camera.Though some of the technology, like the film that covers the cardboard, was not available until recently, “it’s a demand issue as well — it’s hard to develop something internally then go cram it into the market if there’s no need,” Mr. Kellogg said about why the package, called Natralock, was only recently introduced.Wal-Mart began selling items in the new packaging in 2010, and though MeadWestvaco declined to release usage numbers, it says that all of the Swiss Army knives are using the new packaging, and about 85 percent of the computer memory market (like USB drives and SD cards) has switched over.MeadWestvaco says the package reduces plastic by 60 percent, on average, versus the clamshell version for a given product. It also is lighter by 30 percent, which cuts down on transportation costs and fuel use.Other packaging suppliers are also offering similarly treated cardboard with small plastic bubbles, which are called blister packs.“We’ve seen a lot of small, high-value products moving away from what would have been two to three years ago a clamshell, to today what is a blister pack or blister board,” said Lorcan Sheehan, the senior vice president of marketing and strategy at ModusLink, which advises companies like Toshiba and HP on their supply chains.The cost savings are big, Mr. Sheehan said. With a blister pack, the cost of material and labor is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than with clamshells. Also, he said, “from package density — the amount that you can fit on a shelf, or through logistics and supply chain, there is frequently 30 to 40 percent more density in these products.”The packages also meet other requirements of retailers. Graphics and text can be printed on it.Because most people cannot tear the product out of the blister pack with their hands, it helps prevent theft. Also, the small Sensormatic tag that is linked to a store’s alarm system is hidden between the two sheets of cardboard; with clamshells, it is stuck onto the exterior, so a shoplifter can more easily peel it off.Though clamshells continue to dangle inside stores, “we’re seeing a significant shift,” Mr. Sheehan said. Among the manufacturers to make the change is the parent company of Wiss-brand metal-cutting snips, which are sold at Home Depot and elsewhere attached to a piece of cardboard with elastic staples — no plastic in sight.Steven Hoskins, manager of packaging engineering for the Apex Tool Group, the parent company of Wiss, said that getting rid of the plastic packaging saved money, allowed for more products per shipment and cut down on waste.And, Mr. Hoskins said, “the package is very attractive to the consumer.”And relatively pain-free.