A Christmas public health hazard

I am not a Christian (not now, not ever) but I have always liked Christmas. It's my favorite (secular) holiday and when the time comes (Christmas Eve or Christmas Day) we Reveres will likely write our traditional Christmas post explaining just why we aren't the obligatory curmudgeons on the issue. But that's for then. There is something I really hate about Christmas, although it's not really about Christmas specifically. It is a public health problem and it's probably worse on Christmas Day than any other day of the year. It's clamshell packaging.

I thought about it (for the umpteenth time) when I heard Mrs. R. yelling (I won't say cursing because you will get the wrong impression of a very ladylike person who is the love of my life) after sustaining minor injuries trying to extract some inconsequential item (a battery? a cable? can't remember) that had been hermetically sealed in thick plastic. While minor her injuries (multiple tiny lacerations) were painful. Her yells were not yells of pain but rage. Wrap rage. I started to search on the web for more information and found plenty. Like this piece from The Washington Post:

This year, Consumer Reports magazine gave an award for the worst plastic clamshell packaging to a warehouse-store version of a Uniden cordless phone set: It took 9 minutes 22 seconds to unwrap completely and nearly caused injury to the person opening it. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, injuries from plastic packaging resulted in 6,400 visits to emergency rooms in 2004. (Margaret Webb Pressler, Washington Post)

I kept running across that same statistic and its source -- 6400 visits to emergency rooms -- but couldn't track it down on the CPSC site. And the expected demise of the clamshell package was another frequent theme, like this from the same WaPo article:

Manufacturers can no longer ignore the soaring consumer complaints. The result, packaging experts say, is that this will be one of the last holiday seasons that require a box cutter.

Did I mention the WaPo piece was from the Christmas season? In 2006? They mention Consumer Reports, so we took a look at what Santa brought them the following Christmas season:

A sealed, hard-plastic clamshell housing a powered toothbrush takes top honors because of the tools, strength, time, and finesse required to extract the contents. Packaging for popular dolls comes in a close second because of the 50 twists, ties, and tapes that shackle the dolls to their plastic and cardboard prison.

Honorable mentions include a box of macaroni and cheese that crushed easily, a toy aircraft carrier with hard-to-liberate pieces, and plastic-encased light bulbs we were hard-pressed to extract without breaking the bulbs or slicing ourselves.

In fact, this year as last, we heard about cut and bloodied fingers, hands, and arms. And we heard from consumers with arthritis who struggled with simple tasks such as opening blister packs of pills, and those who used any implement at hand--pliers, kitchen shears, bolt-cutters, military issue can openers, hacksaws, files, teeth, and fingernails--to get the job done. (CR's Oyster Awards, the hard-to-open-packaging hall of shame).

The reason for the clamshell, we learned, is to prevent "shrinkage." You mean batteries shrink if left uncovered? "Shrinkage," we further learned is the retail industry's term of art for "theft." Hard-to-open packing is also claimed to protect toys on their long and tiring trip through the birth canal, which often starts in China. Don't want any of that lead paint to chip off, do we? And what about its final moments before toy parturition?

We watched a 7-year-old as she attempted to liberate Bratz Sisterz dolls from their packaging. We gave her safety scissors, though she preferred using her hands. Eight minutes after she began, the child, noticeably agitated and breathing heavily, freed the dolls, which now looked as if they had just returned from a rough night on the town. Our young tester resorted to ripping the dolls from the packaging. The Sisterz were missing clumps of hair, and strings, plastic tabs, and wires were everywhere. Some of the wires remained stuck around the dolls’ arms. (Consumer Reports)

That was 2007. The makers of Braatz Siterz dolls said the industry understood consumers were frustrated and the market was going to respond with easier packaging. Fast forward to last Christmas season (2008). In a story entitled, Packages You Won’t Need a Saw to Open, we read:

Sony, meanwhile, has started an ambitious internal project it optimistically calls “death of the clamshell.” The electronics giant is developing three packaging prototypes it plans to test in the coming months at Best Buy and Wal-Mart Stores. One uses an adhesive that is easy to pry open but makes a loud Velcro-like noise — intended to deter thieves.

Sony has even taken its anticlamshell campaign to its rank and file. At its annual sales and marketing meeting in April, held in Palm Desert, Calif., the company showed 1,200 employees a humorous video of four consumers struggling to open Sony products. One of them resorted to a hacksaw, another used his teeth and a third cut his finger. (Brad Stone And Matt Richtel, New York Times)

Hahahahaha. The day after last Christmas we found this story on an ABC-TV news station:

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, or CPSC, plastic packaging has caused more than 25,000 injuries since 2004.

The problem is not just the hard, clamshell like casing.

It is also what people are using to open up the packaging.

Scissors and knifes are the common implements people use.

The result isn’t always good said Dr. Robb Leigh, an ER physician at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix.

“They can inflict serious injuries, especially in hands,” said Dr. Leigh.

Ever year he treats injuries caused by people trying to open plastic clamshell packaging.

“They are definitely frustrated that it is so hard to open, which it shouldn’t be,” he said.

Dr. Leigh said some of the injuries are superficial, but some are more serious than they appear.

“A lot of times it is not really that minor,” he said. “You can cut through the top of the fingers like a millimeter or two and already be down to the tendons. So, it’s not that hard to reach that.”

CPSC injury reports show a Phoenix woman “cut herself” when the knife she was using to open a package “slipped”.

In Santa Fe, a man tried using “scissors, a kitchen knife, a box cutter and finally a butchers cleaver. The cleaver slipped and cut his hand. He required eight stitches.” (produced by Nicole Longhini, ABC15 [Phoenix, AZ])

What was different about this report was not the promise that things are getting better but the practical tips on how to open clamshell packaging. The first item, so appropriate for family togetherness as you gather around the tree to open your presents is this one: Always clear the area of people. It's followed by advice to use heavy duty utility scissors with blunt tips while wearing protective gloves on both hands. Merry Christmas!

Appended to the tips on how to open your gift are the indications for when doing so should be followed by a trip to the emergency room. We bring them to you as a public service, courtesy Dr. Robb Leigh of Phoenix's Good Samaritan Hospital and channel 15:

  • Get your injury checked out if it’s to the back of the hand or arm.
  • Usually the inside tips of the fingers are okay. Bandage the injury. If it doesn’t look good after awhile, go see your doctor.
  • If you think you’ve cut a tendon, go to the ER.
  • A deep injury to the palm can be dangerous, go to the ER.
  • If you aren’t sure, don’t be embarrassed - ask your physician if the injury is serious.

We'll get to the reasons why we like Christmas in a later post. Clamshell packaging isn't one of them.

More like this

In addition to injuries and "wrap rage", there is the problem of disposing of vicious clamshell shards. They shred through garbage bags, and if they do make it to the landfill, they are there forever.

By Path Forward (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

YES! Fought with a clamshell package yesterday - can't believe there is no simple way to open them. My kids are past Barbie dolls, but the few Christmasses I helped undo the 20 wire twistie ties that held their hands, necks, ankles, I could not help thinking about the poor kids somewhere in Asia who do nothing but twist these ties in umpteen hour shifts... Merry Christmas...

When the "receipt checker" at Costco accosts me at the exit, I repay them by having them open any clamshells I may have purchased. They get to keep the remains as well.

By Don in VA (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

For what it's worth, I've found that the easiest way to open these packages is to use large, sturdy pair of scissors to cut all around the periphery of the object, separating the sealed edge from the package. Usually this makes it easy to open the clam shell (but you still have to look out for sharp edges).

Not to be a shill, but Amazon carries stuff/toys that they specifically say are not hard to open. I wish the clamshell would go away!

I was lucky to receive a tool very much like this one

Essentially, tin snips with a few other useful additions.

By microfool (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Diane: Amazon has taken the lead in this, but remember, they don't have to display their items or worry about shoplifting. I love the little inflatable bags they use to pack their books and other stuff.

In a pinch, a standard manual can opener like this one will work great on many blister packs without major risk of self-injury, IME.

By microfool (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

microtool: Thanks for the tip (both of them, but especially the second; never thought of that).

I've spend a few weeks on a holiday job working for an electronics recycling plant.
One of the jobs involved opening pallets full of boxes containing nothing but clammshell packages and sorting what was in the packages for recycling.
The upside of that part of the job is that I've now learned how to fillet clamshell packaging and do it fast.

Fillet is a fairly accurate way to describe the technique since the first step involves jamming a sharp knife in the seam of the two sides of the package then slice open the bottom along the line where the clamshell bends. The reason for the bottom is that it is the only part where there are no nasty contrivances (that I've seen) to make opening harder.

By Who Cares (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Specialized tools for the purpose aside, heavy duty shears are probably the safest (but many packages will resist or even destroy light-duty scissors). Second choice would be a utility knife, adjusted to allow the smallest possible bit of blade protruding from the handle (at least if you cut yourself, it will be shallow). Remember also that the cut edge of the packaging itself will also be quite sharp, and can produce a nasty cut, like a paper cut only worse.

I remember when I first started to encounter this style of packaging and I just assumed I was an idiot that couldn't figure out how to open it. I figured, there is no way that everybody has this much trouble, they'd have to fix the packaging then!

I think that may have been last century...

When the "receipt checker" at Costco accosts me at the exit, I repay them by having them open any clamshells I may have purchased. They get to keep the remains as well.

Does this actually work?

There, you've gone and done it. Now I know whose voice you have.

You have successfully imprinted the voice of Jean Shepard, the narrator of "A Christmas Story" in my image of REVERE!

"You'll put an eye out with that."

I've found tht tinsnips are the tool of choice for opening clamshell packaging. Don't EVEN attempt any other method first!

I'm usually pretty good with the normal clamshells, but I had to deal with an unusually bad one recently. Opening a set of screwdrivers at the edges was simple enough, but then I had to deal with a bunch of little spots where the front of the package was sealed to the back. There was no way to get my utility scissors to some of those spots, so I basically had to rage it apart and risk the flying tools.

By ABradford (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Had to open a clamshell package in a hotel room. Ended up using the corkscrew from the mini bar. After finally opening the darn thing w/o too much damage to myself, I needed to open a bottle of wine from the min-bar to relax, at the 5-star mini-bar price no less.

Those damned plastic clamshells are the bane of my existence. Even when I use a boxcutter, I still always manage to cut my hands up pretty badly on the packaging. Worse, the plastic is not easy to recycle -- it's usually #5 or #6.

Bubble wrap, cardboard box and a lot of packing tape, please.

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

My wife severed the tendon at the base of her thumb trying to open a clamshell. Getting the point of one scissor blade to penetrate so she could start the scissoring was the moment. She was lucky, the ER surgeon was able to tease the end back out far enough to staple it back to the stub. Very messy.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Great seasonal post- I SOOOO identified with the wrap rage!! I once reported an OHS incident at work because the toilet flush lever bit a chunk out of my thumb webbing!!
Also- I've reblogged your post via a link in my own blog- hope that's OK.

I'll second the can opener comment - it works like a charm, assuming you have a sufficiently sharp can opener, and it's not that fancy-pants "smooth edges" kind. Our old busted can opener just weakened the seams, but a newer one cut right through.

Honestly though - if it gets to the point where there's an actual market for tools to open your crappy packaging, you're doing it wrong.

murfomurf: Glad you liked it. Everything on this site has a Creative Commons license so it's free for the taking (credit and link appreciated, of course).

I just use a SawzAll on the packages.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

It's followed by advice to use heavy duty utility scissors with blunt tips while wearing protective gloves on both hands. Merry Christmas!

EMT trauma shears to the rescue!

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Thanks for this, Revere--for years I've thought the problem was my weak carpal-tunneled fingers. Now though I'm worrying about sending the "atomic clock" and "hybrid LED solar flashlight" tomorrow. But in a matter even more pressing upon public health, the organization NOW today has sent around an email/link regarding a "stealth" commission that could install Medicare/Social Security cuts; here is the link (copy and paste--should work) if anyone's interested: http://www.now.org/lists/now-action-list/msg00415.html

Thanks for posting this - it made my day!

We own two pairs of heavy leather scissors. One pair is for leather, and Dire Consequences shall be visited on whoever uses them on something else. The other is for clamshell packaging.

I cut off the sealed edges. If that does not free it, I begin to slice off strips around the object. Eventually, the packaging is destroyed and the object loose.

By Alexandra Lynch (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

There was wrap rage back in the 1960s. I remember a long tirade in some magazine, probably Newsweek, about the sheer difficulty of extracting a Life Saver from its tube-like package. Life Savers had been in that packaging since the early 30s, but as a child of the 60s I could identify with the struggle. Of course, the modern clamshell is hell and hell again, but what of the future? Will we be up against boron nitride nanofibers or some molecular beam epitaxied packaging horror under our organic LED Christmas trees? Will wrap rage make it into the DSM along with PGPSD for gift packaging survivors? Will scissors and tin snips give way to the oxide process solid state cutting torch?

It seems that the clamshell package is not found everywhere. I have seen little of this type of packaging in Japan, but it is so very common in the U.S. The same mp3 player which is wrapped in a clamshell, here in the U.S., is simply packaged in a cardboard box in Japan.

Maybe this has more to do with the amount of shoplifting in each country? I would love to see the statistics comparing the U.S. and Japan.

By Joe Edwards (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

Clamshell packaging. Now I know my enemy's name.

By antipodean (not verified) on 15 Dec 2009 #permalink

I have used various knives, cutters, scissors and cleavers but usually if I have a clear work area a hacksaw is the fastest and safest tool for me. Except for that one package which required a chainsaw. (And there is no way for you to know if the last item is a joke or not) The designer of the clamshell should be, must be, very seriously punished.

By daniel.pyron (not verified) on 15 Dec 2009 #permalink

For those of you that had Costco employees remove your product from the clamshell package, which Costco were you at? What did they do with these packages? I am trying to find a way to recycle clams but we need the critical mass; Costco would be a great place to start. Any help?

By Chandler Slavin (not verified) on 16 Dec 2009 #permalink

Secular Holiday? Yeesh. Might as well call it your favorite commercial holiday. Lighten up Francis.

mb: It is our favorite commercial holiday. We'll explain around Christmas, as we do every year. It's not as odd as it sounds. Or maybe you will think so anyway. But we like Christmas and we'll tell you why, shortly.

This cutter with a tiny retractable ceramic blade that cuts plastic and paper but not fingers opens most clamshells for me. It's also inexpensive and small compared to some of the other tools out there made for this purpose: http://www.islice.com/

By SFMayhemmm (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink