String Theory

I hate packaging. Especially shrink-wrapped anything. And pens or toothbrushes locked between a clear plastic bubble and cardboard backing. And those plastic boxes for mixed salad greens with cellophane edging and corner grips you have to pry open with a knife. And plastic cereal freshness bags that are sealed so tight you have to cut them with scissors, which makes it impossible to roll them up to keep the cereal crisp.

Just about everything we buy, with the possible exception of fresh produce, is so swaddled in plastic, cardboard and styrofoam that it requires major surgery to open the container. At least, that’s how it feels every time I struggle with scissors, box cutters, tweezers, knives and whatever other implement I can find to perform the operation. Often, I end up using my teeth—not good, I know, but since I lack useable fingertips, it’s the next best thing.

Of course, all this excessive packaging is not only bad for my hands (and teeth) in my postage stamp corner of the world. It’s also bad for the planet.

We do our part to recycle, buy recycled products and favor recycled packaging. We use cloth bags for groceries and say no-thanks to bags for items we can carry in our hands. I helped start our city’s comprehensive recycling program about twenty years ago. But recycling isn’t enough. We need to rethink our obsession with packaging and cut the excess.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that packaging overkill started with the 1982 Tylenol scare in Chicago. When several people were poisoned by cyanide-laced Extra Strength Tylenol capsules, the manufacturer yanked 31 million bottles off the shelves, re-engineered their pain-killer to create tamper-proof caplets and created triple-sealed safety containers to regain market share.

It was certainly understandable at the time. But since then, everything seems to be double- or triple-sealed, whether necessary or not. Do we really need the tamper-proof cellophane seal around the neck of our over-the-counter pill bottles plus the peel-off seal over the bottle mouth (that shreds and sticks to the bottle’s lip when you try to peel it)? Or plastic wrap around each pair of rolls inside a plastic-shrouded eight-pack of toilet paper? Or shrink-wrapped index cards?

In a world where “see something, say something” announcements are the white noise of public spaces, ensuring that anything we ingest is safely packaged is a necessary paranoia. Someone did inject cyanide in those Tylenol capsules. Evil abounds.

But there’s tamper-proofing medicine and then there’s sealing something benign with so many layers of cardboard, glue, tape and plastic that you need a hacksaw to release the contents.

My dad was a master of this technique. Whenever I’d get a package from him in the mail, it would be hermetically sealed with clear plastic tape, packed with styrofoam peanuts, the buried goods wrapped in a taped plastic bag. There was always something very neat and orderly about his packages, the corners perfectly folded, the tape squared. Next to impossible to open, but a work of super-secure packaging art.

Perhaps, in this war-on-terror world, that’s what we’re seeking with all the pristine shrink-wrapped tissue boxes and triple-sealed moisturizer—reassurance that everything is nice and neat and safe. Nothing to worry about if your toilet paper is double-protected from the elements until you’re ready to use it.

Except, of course, that all that plastic ends up in landfills, and we’re running out of room.

Whatever happened to string? I can’t remember the last time I went into a bakery and left with a cardboard box of goodies tied with a white string bow, instead of sealed in a clear plastic, crush-proof clamshell. You could smell the cookies or pastries through the box, which made the trip all the more enticing. When you got home, you’d untie the bow and save the string in your kitchen junk drawer for another package, or tie it to the end of your white string ball.

Today, decorative mask string-holders, the kind that used to hang on the kitchen wall, the string’s tail dangling through the mask’s open mouth for easy access, sell for thousands of dollars as collector’s items. We’d do better to invest in R&D for safe, efficient, reduced-waste packaging, and start collecting string.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at


  1. Great. Send this to Sierra Club, etc!~!! I’d be very curious to see what feedback you get on this. Send it to Leominster, the plastic capital of the world. A


  1. […] problems, however. First there was all the shrink wrap and plastic packaging to remove, one of my pet peeves that requires deft maneuvers to avoid mashing my hands. Then I had to pry open the battery holder […]

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