Packaging Technology... of the Future!

I needed a band-aid this morning, and when I was getting it out, it occurred to me that there are some subtle details of packaging technology that pretty clearly mark this as the future, not the past. I'm not sure when the transition was, but if you're around my age or older, you can probably remember the useless little red strings that used to be an integral part of the band-aid packaging. In theory, you were supposed to pull on the string, and use it to tear the paper wrapper around the bandage, but in practice, the damn thing always just pulled straight out of the package, and you ended up ripping the wrapper open with your teeth.

I can't recall the last time I saw one of those, so I'm not sure when they got rid of them, or how they did it (I know why-- because the damn things never worked), but there must've been some reason why they used to do it that way, and some advance in packaging technology that let them eliminate the stupid little strings. And good riddance to them.

This is a specific example of a larger trend, though, namely the steady small evolution of packaging. Lots of things that used to be ubiquitous are gone and mostly forgotten-- pull tabs on aluminum cans went away in the 80's, styrofoam fast-food boxes in the early 90's, and so on. These changes are almost always for the better-- pull tabs were an annoying and mildly dangerous component of litter (and choked the occasional idiot who dropped the tab into the can, then chugged the contents), and stryofoam food boxes were a huge waste of resources. You can also probably use them as markers for a sort of pop-culture stratigraphy-- if the picture of someone ordering a Big Mac has it in a styrofoam box, it's from the 80's, if it's a paper box, it's from the late 90's.

There's probably a reasonably interesting book to be written about this, covering the evolution of the technology used to package stuff, and also the way we think about it. There are a bunch of different aspects to this-- pull tabs went away because they were sort of dangerous, styrofoam boxes because public opinion turned in a slightly more environmental direction, and band-aid strings because... it was cheaper? I don't know why, exactly, but somebody could probably write an interesting story about why they were there originally, and why they went away.

Or maybe not. Anyway, that's the sort of thing that occurs to me early in the morning, after trivial amounts of blood loss. And really, isn't this sort of thing what blogs are for?

Categories

More like this

You can't put a Band-Aid on every boo-boo you've made; some just need time to heal... - Christina Montano
Earlier this month, news broke of a study that found potentially health-harming chemicals in a variety of fast food packaging. Upon hearing such news, the natural inclination is to worry that you’re ingesting those chemicals along with your burger and fries. Study researcher Graham Peaslee says…
The Pip has pinkeye. Again. This means he can't go to day care for at least one day, which means I'm home with him for the morning, and Kate will tag in at lunchtime so I can go teach my class. This, in turn, means that you don't get any substantive blogging today, because the second I start typing…
Dan MacArthur of Genetics Future is at the center of a minor controversy because of his blogging The Biology of Genomes conference. Realistically it seems updating pre-internet protocols is just a band-aid solution. And the issues aren't particular to blogging conferences, they're general to the…

pull tabs on aluminum cans went away in the 80's

Here, yes. I was shocked to see them on cans when I was other the river and through the woods, to some other country we go...

I find this stuff interesting too.

When I was in college, I worked at the first McDonalds to go to non-styrofoam packaging -- or so I was told. This was in 1990 in Berkeley, and the latter makes it pretty believable. The city council evidently banned styrofoam from food packaging or something, which is the kind of thing the city council did in Berkeley quite a bit. We didn't have the cardboard boxes, so we used paper wraps. Actually not a bad solution.

When I was a kid collecting beer cans, I was fascinated by the old cone top beer cans. They were metal cans that were designed to use bottle caps, so they had a conical top that led up to the cap.

While watching (grumble) football over the weekend, I noticed a Coors commercial for an aluminum can with a screwtop. Aside from being bigger, it looked just like the old cone top cans. It was a real back-to-the-future moment. I think glass is on the way out because it's heavy and thus expensive to transport, and also because you can't use it in so many places. There's a real trend emerging for quality microbrews in cans.

CD packaging is another evolving area. (Yeah, I still buy CDs; I don't want my music "deauthorized" at some random time in the future.) I bought four this weekend, and was mildly surprised to notice that three of them were old-style plastic jewel cases. Most now seem to be either all-cardboard sleeves, or mostly cardboard with a plastic disc holder.

All in all, packaging seems to be improving in lots of little ways. The worst exception however is the plastic clamshell packaging that's more and more common for moderately-complicated stuff like tools or electronic gear. Those packs are a pain in the ass to open and the plastic shards are pretty damn sharp. I'm sure that countless people have gouged themselves with a partly-open package; how this hasn't led to a lawsuit yet is beyond me. I think these packages will eventually date the 2000s just like the pull-tab dates the 1970s.

There's probably a reasonably interesting book to be written about this, covering the evolution of the technology used to package stuff, and also the way we think about it.

I read an excellent one about 10 years ago, though I can't remember its title. Cellophane was revolutionary!

CD packaging is another evolving area. (Yeah, I still buy CDs; I don't want my music "deauthorized" at some random time in the future.)

Speaking of which: Back in my undergrad days some people decorated their dorm rooms with what one of my friends described as "expensive wallpaper": the paperboard packaging that CDs came in during the 1980s and early 1990s. The purpose of this packaging was to allow record stores (remember them?) to display CDs in racks that were formerly used to display 12" vinyl records (remember them?). These cases disappeared at some point during the 1990s. One of the casualties: By the time I acquired a copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band several years ago, it came without the cut-out figures that are mentioned in the little booklet where the lyrics are printed. Those cut-outs would have been on the paperboard package that the CD would have come in when it was released in 1987 (on the 20th anniversary of the original release--recall the opening line of the album's title track).

Related to that is the evolution of multi-CD packs. Originally, most two-CD sets came in packages that were about twice as thick as single-CD jewel cases (e.g., Pink Floyd's The Wall). I know of only one case (the Sand in the Vaseline compilation by Talking Heads), though there might be others, where the record company took the obvious-to-me step of using the otherwise wasted space in the paperboard packaging to include a second jewel case. Recently, however, two-disk sets I have bought come in jewel cases of the same dimensions as the single-CD jewel cases of yore. My most recent double-thickness jewel case purchase was actually a 4-disc set of collected works of P. D. Q. Bach.

As for single CDs, I have seen various attempts to move to cheaper alternatives to the jewel case, but none of them have taken. Cardboard sleeves have been around since at least the end of the 1980s, when I bought a couple of cheap classical compilations thus packaged. I have seen intermittent attempts to introduce similar packaging since then, but the jewel case seems to be holding out. That may be in part because anybody who goes to the trouble of buying a physical CD these days wants a hard case to put it in.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 Sep 2010 #permalink

Another evolution is the bottom of the pop bottle - remember when they used to come with plastic caps on the bottoms so they would be more stable? Now they just have the set of five bumps. It reduced a surprisingly large amount of plastic waste.

Yeah, I still buy CDs; I don't want my music "deauthorized" at some random time in the future.

All downloadable music sold by Amazon is DRM-free, and I believe the same is now true of iTunes.

I can't pinpoint the shift, but at some point you were able to assume that metal beverage cans were alumnium. I know this wasn't always the case because during the early 1980s my father was advisor to the campus MPIRG chapter and helped get some campus recycling started. Somehow at the beginning this involved cans ending up at our house and a five or six year old me going through them with a magnet looking for nonaluminum cans before taking them to the scrap yard. I got to keep the proceeds which seemed like lots of money to me. (By lots of money I mean anything over a dollar.)

By katydid13 (not verified) on 13 Sep 2010 #permalink

occasionally I would get the string to work as intended: one of life's little victories!

some advance in packaging technology that let them eliminate the stupid little strings.

these days, semi-adhesives--which got much more reliable and cheap (think post-its)--let you store bandages for a long time without the risk of coming undone and letting in germs, yet still peel apart easily when you finally do need the bandages.

cisko: The worst exception however is the plastic clamshell packaging that's more and more common for moderately-complicated stuff like tools or electronic gear.

with these small-but-relatively-expensive items, I suspect the clamshell is to deter shoplifters: the difficult/dangerous packaging makes it much harder for a miscreant to unobtrusively bust open a package and slip the item in a pocket or backpack.

so it's another case of the large majority Good Citizens having to suffer to protect against the few Bad Guys.

Eric@4: Yeah, I thought of the stand-up cards too. I think they were also described as an anti-theft thing, though the LP racks were probably the #1 factor. I buy a lot of indie rock, and I think they're much more willing to give up on the jewel case than the bigger publishers. Nothing is as impressive as the artwork for a 12" fold-out LP, though.

mph@6: Fair point. iTunes sells a mix, at least the last I checked, with DRMed songs $0.99 and non-DRM $1.29. Of course, if you buy a whole album, then you have to dig deeper to figure out what's what. At any rate, I think my intransigence is also an acknowledgment of my poor backup practices. It's also born of a desire to keep my local music shop in business, because I discover a lot of cool music through them that I wouldn't otherwise find.

for me its motor oil in metal cans that had to be punctured. strange that the switch to bottles took so long, has plastic tech really changed that much?

Eric Lund @ 4:

Recently, however, two-disk sets I have bought come in jewel cases of the same dimensions as the single-CD jewel cases of yore.

That's not exactly recent - they started that in the early nineties. AC/DC _Live_ from 1992 was the first one I saw.

Matt @ 10: I'm no expert, but seeing as plastic is a petroleum product there may have been problems with the bottles being dissolved by the contents.

By Roy G. Ovrebo (not verified) on 13 Sep 2010 #permalink

STOP YOUR FALSE, MALICIOUS ATTACK ON THE PULL TAB: After you removed the pull tab from an aluminum can, you could snap the ring off of the tab and then insert the tab into one of the two notches on either side of where the ring attached to the tab. You could then pull back on the ring, bending the tab. Releasing the ring would send it spinning away at near-relativistic speed.

A few choking deaths is a small price to pay for a feature THAT cool.

By Emory Kimbrough (not verified) on 14 Sep 2010 #permalink

In Rubbish: The Archaeology of Garbage, Rathje has a chapter on can pull tabs. They changed slowly before vanishing, so they could be used for dating rubbish. I imagine that people in the business of dating garbage have a database they use. (Me, I'd rather date a girl. You can use that joke to date me.)

I think the enabling technology for the new band aid packaging was better control of the sugar strand bonding strength so they could let you tear the top layer from the bottom layer of the wrapper in a controlled manner. It's the same technology as Post It notes, but calibrated differently for a much higher adhesion, but with a smooth failure.

Industrial chemists do a lot of this stuff. For example, they use carbo-waxes for controlling the viscosity of all sorts of products, shampoos, lotions, and so on. Instead of just liquid or wax, you can order the chain length you want and get just the texture you want.

The BandAid strings may have sucked, but the metal tins they used to come in were FAR superior to flimsy cardboard boxes. BandAids can hang around in the bathroom cabinet for a really long time, and the boxes often wind up getting mangled and flattened. Plus the tins were always handy for doodad storage around the house.