Our daily packaging

For some reason I never paid too much attention to food packaging until I got to China and realized, damn, some things here are ridiculously over-packaged (or ill-packaged). Packaging, beyond its purpose to contain/transport/preserve, is essentially a tool for selling things. Often, if brand preference doesn’t come into play, the choice between two otherwise similar (in price, contents) products comes down to packaging: which typeface do I like more? Which bottle will look nicer on the counter? Is paper or plastic more eco-friendly? Do I want the frozen black sesame dumplings with a grinning Jackie Chan on the bag or the ones without? (Sean chose the Jackie Chan, and they all exploded in the pot.) I’ve spent long, long minutes in front of packs of supposedly simple items like salt, sugar, and cornstarch, trying to determine which one looks the most legitimate or least suspect.

We seem to have come to believe that the more — the prettier — the packaging, the better quality the product is, or the more value-for-money it is, or the more face-saving it is (in the case of gift-giving, which is huuuge in China). I’m totally guilty of picking the bottle of olive oil that’s encased a nice box (“I’ll find a use for it!”) over the exact same but non-boxed item, or the [insert product here] that’s wrapped in an extra layer of plastic — ’cause it looks safer, more pristine, like more attention was devoted to making the product just a little bit better than its competitor. Especially in China where people’s trust in products has fallen with each new publicized food scandal, a little more packaging can add much to consumers’ sense of security.

In reality, most of this is a sham, and leads to an incredible amount of waste. But what are we to do as consumers? We’re not in charge of the way things are packaged, but we do have a say, usually, in what we buy. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that if there’s a product I like, I will keep buying, feeling shameful enough about the waste to wish there were a less-packaged alternative, but not guilty enough to not keep buying the product (because I don’t see an alternative on the shelf). For dried goods, there’s always the bulk section — and even zero-packaging stores in the UK and soon Texas — but I’ve seen bugs crawling in the brown rice bin at Trust-Mart (now Walmart, btw) and moth larvae grow out of my bag of bulk black rice, so there goes that option.

I’ve touched on over-packaged
and before, but over the next months will post more instances of remarkable packaging as I come across them — not just to show how ridiculous things are getting/have become, but also, in cases where I’ve actually bought the product, to expose my own not-so-great consumption habits (which I am trying slowly to change, I promise). With any luck, there’ll also be some positive finds along the way.

Stay tuned!

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