I recently bought a country house. Having an empty house leads immediately to many trips to buy all of the things a house needs to become a home. In making these trips, I learned two things.

First: stuff is really cheap. You can buy a coffee maker, a toaster, and a blender for $15 a piece. $20 gets you cutlery for six. Sales at Pier One offer up good quality dishes for a buck. A stop at the dollar store yields giant bags of cleaning supplies, kitchen gadgets, a hammer and a set of screwdrivers, plastic storage containers, and curtains: $40 total. A mere $49 gets a vacuum cleaner. Home Depot has nice rugs for $99. Bath towels are $3.99 at Target (I bought a dozen).

The second thing I learned in filling my house up with all these products is that the hardest part is accessing them once you get them home. Packaging is out of control. Virtually every household good is embalmed in cardboard, plastic, Styrofoam, metal, tape, and glue.

The microwave I bought ($39) came in a giant box with 2 inch metal staples and a metal band around the perimeter to keep the box flaps down. After prying the box open, I hit Styrofoam so tight in the box that it took several minutes to extract. Once I slid out the entire contents, releasing the oven from the Styrofoam case required severing thick plastic bands. (Ordinary scissors didn’t work – I used pruning sheers.) The oven itself was then wrapped in a huge plastic bag. Getting the oven door open required pulling off tape that left a stick residue. Inside, the glass turntable was inside a box wedged diagonally in the oven. The electrical cord was wrapped up tightly in a plastic band (pruning sheers again). The plug had a plastic cover that had to be pried off. Besides the box, nothing was recyclable. And it’s not just appliances. Every plate and bowl I bought came bundled up in bubble wrap or foam. A cutlery set had every single fork, spoon and knife attached individually, top and bottom, to thick cardboard with a metal band.

And then there are the labels. Anything you pick off a store shelf has a label secured with glue so impenetrable it could hold the Space Shuttle together. When I first encountered these labels, on dishes, I tried washing them off with hot soapy water. No go. I then tried soaking the dishes overnight. That loosened the labels but left behind a sticky residue. The dishwasher didn’t get the glue off either. Eventually, I discovered a label-removal technique: I soaked a paper towel in WD40 and set it on each label for an hour.

What strange confluence of laws and economic incentives produce all of this hyperpackaging of inexpensive goods? Do appliances break unless transported in a foot of protection? Do consumers injure themselves if they get the box home and the flatware is right at the surface and unsecured? Do labels deter theft of open-stock items (“We know that this isn’t your cereal bowl you have under your sweater because it has our label on it.”)? Or ensure that things don’t get misplaced on store shelves?

It’s clearly wasteful. Of time (mine). And of resources.

My town doesn’t have trash collection so everything has to be taken to the “transfer station” on weekends. There, local residents are busy sorting things into the proper recycling bin. To dispose of items that can’t be recycled you have to pay $2 for an orange trash bag which you then fill and take to a chute right next to the attendant’s office. Many people have no orange bags of trash to dispose of; I’ve never seen anybody with more than one bag. I have been hauling five or six at a time. Huge bags of packaging that is no good to anybody anymore – and likely never was.

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8 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    Mmm, if you have residue still try “Goo gone.”

    Follow my url to see it. it works great.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    From your description of the microwave packaging it seems to be primarily about preventing breakage. Given that, is it necessarily “wasteful”? Environmentally unfriendly, sure, but it might work out in terms of cost from the manufacturer’s perspective.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    Whoops I read too fast — you specified that it wastes resources and your time. Still, it sucks to get something home and only then find out that it’s broken.

  4. Kaimi says:

    In my experience, it’s usually worth it to spend the extra $5 or $10 and buy your tools (especially screwdrivers) at Home Depot. The dollar store is great for many things, but tools are not one of them.

    A couple of good six-in-ones from Home Depot will last for years and years of miscellaneous home repairs.

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    In the economistic spirit of your question about incentives, you might take a look at Franck Cochon’s Une sociologie du packaging ou l’âne de Buridan face au marché (2002). He points out that consumer choices are an example of “distributed rationality”: the consumer usually can’t know about packaged goods a priori, and the packaging plays a role in the choice. He also discusses the role of governments, third-party certifiers, &al. in warnings, notices &c. Building on his points, I’d suggest that one reason for the styrofoam fillers, etc. is to bulk out a package so that it has more easily printable surfaces for pictures and for other marketing and regulatory messages.(That said, I think Cochon is way too accepting of neoclassical theory; this is a symptom of the “Science & Technology Studies/Author-Network Theory” school of thought in which he participates.)

    I was struck by Bruce’s comment, “[I]s it necessarily ‘wasteful’? Environmentally unfriendly, sure, but it might work out in terms of cost from the manufacturer’s perspective.” Such a light attitude towards environmental “unfriendliness”! I suggest it’s a waste not only of the purchaser’s time but also of public goods, namely the resources that go into making the hyperpackaging and the clean environment that would persist but for the pollution attendant on the packaging’s manufacture and disposal. In other words, the packaging on Jason’s stuff has a negative impact on me (and the rest of us), too. There’s a lot of mischief done by the neoclassicals’ rhetorical move of calling pollution an “externality”: in reality, all economic activity is embedded in the physical environment, and inevitably produces physical waste (e.g. as material, heat or both).

    I agree it’s a bummer to bring home broken stuff, but while all that packaging may be sufficient for bringing it home unbroken, it’s not clear that it’s necessary. See generally Daniel Imhoff’s Paper or Plastic(2005). Moreover, some countries, like Germany, make manufacturers responsible for the disposal of packaging. That would change the incentives a bit.

  6. Bruce Boyden says:

    AJ, obviously it’s all a balancing act. Since our very existence harms the environment, I think I’m safe in assuming the proper balance is somewhere north of “zero impact.”

  7. Frank says:

    I find the hyperpackaging very annoying and useless, too. I have a sense a lot of branding and packaging is a pretty pointless arms race–“how can my product look nicer than the other products.” As the book “Obsessive Branding Disorder” suggest,s it’s all about surface, not substance.

    Ironically, trade dress law appears to incentivize such frippery and persiflage by protecting only the nonfunctional elements of what a product looks like.

    On a related note, I’m looking forward to your book!

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    I agree about the annoyance. But as for the so-called nonfunctional elements, here I think Cochon makes a good point: the standard assumption in neoclassical economics that consumer preferences are pre-existing is often wrong. While you might be able to do research about some products (such as cars) online before you purchase, that’s not true for plenty of others. In those cases, unless you go into the store knowing what you want to buy and succeed in finding it, you rely on packaging to help you decide what to buy — not only its trade dress but also what’s written on it, pictures of the product, what you can see through the blister pack, etc. (For me, this is especially the case in Japan, where I’ve never used most of the products before, and where it seems to be impossible to find, say, the same brand of shampoo by the time you finish a bottle of something you like.) For consumers in this state of ignorance, the surface is, of necessity, the substance.