Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Sorry - no posts lately. I've been sick for the past week and am still battling the dry unproductive cough that will not let me sleep at night.

I have long been irritated by excessive packaging of goods, especially with the current heightened focus on recycling and reducing waste. Why is it taking so long for companies to embrace a philosophy of aggressively reducing packaging? I am glad to see Walmart stepping up to the plate to make a concerted effort to become a greener corporation. We'll see how well they continue to follow through. Costco often falls short on packaging, despite selling bulk items, things are often double or even triple packaged.

For instance, yesterday I bought a package of maximum strength Mucinex expectorant. The bottle that contained 14 tablets was at least 4 times the size it needed to be, and that bottle was inside a box that was 2-3 times bigger than the bottle. Not only is this excess package waste, but excess shipping space which equals more gas to ship the item. And for what purpose? I just really don't get it.


Dave Hampton said...

Great question (and get well soon!)

It's a complex topic, but a simple way to think about it is that the product has primary and secondary packaging. The inner, primary package is the medical one, and the outer, secondary package is used to market the drug from the shelf.

The primary packaging, much like a pill bottle, functions to contain the medication securely, maintain potency, protect the drug from the environment, provide trace-ability, and keep the product from being secretly tampered with. As in the case of a blister pack, it may also support the dosing of the medication. The labeling on the primary package is medically oriented, containing dose and ingredient information required by law. There isn't much room for brand marketing.

So, the secondary package belongs to the marketing department, provideing an outward face to sell the medication to over-the-counter consumers on competitive store shelves. (Notice that prescription drugs don't have this element when you get the bottle from the pharmacist.) The secondary package may simply encase the primary packaging, or may help to contain other elements of the delivery system such as a measuring tube. It also contains the detailed indications for use that are required by the FDA. Finally, it also must be tracable and tamper-proof.

Leslie said...

You are right - that excess packaging is so wasteful (and annoying).

I hope you're feeling better.

AB said...

Thanks Dave - that does shed some light on the issue. It is unfortunate that the size of the package is dictated by the amount of print or advertising needed though, rather than the size of the product. I wonder if that will change at any point. It seems like a single display box for the shelf with multiple smaller bottles still might suffice. I guess ultimately it comes down to marketing. At least with the Robitussin I bought (in generic form) the bottle was full, and the box was only as big as the bottle.

I know that companies who make an effort to be more environmentally friendly weigh heavily in my decision on which products to choose but ultimately my choice usually boils down to price and value. With drugs, which item is most effective, then secondly which of the most effective choices is cheapest. It certainly doesn't help that company though if upon opening a package, my impression is that they have been wasteful. It shadows my opinion of that company as a whole and makes it less likely that I will be a repeat buyer. On the flip side, when I am pleasantly surprised to see a company making efforts to be environmentally conscious in their decisions, I am left with a positive impression and am more likely to seek out that company or brand in the future.

I do see that some of it is dictated by law though.

For the mucinex, it wasn't a blister pack (for travel I like blister packs actually) and the bottle was huge compared to the amount of pills in it. The pills took up maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of the space in the bottle, and the bottle only took up about a 1/3 of the box! But guess what? Those boxes took up more shelf space and were highly visible compared to other cough supressants so I think in this case, the answer was pretty clearly marketing driven.

I think this is the reason it is important for consumers to keep harping on companies to change this way of thinking, and to try to use our buying power to encourage more eco-friendly choices in "marketing". Until it is proven to do more harm than good to the bottom line companies will continue to make choices based on monetary rather than environmental impacts.

I try to leave feedback with companies objecting to packaging waste when I can - which I did with the mucinex yesterday. I sent an email to the distributor. Unless it becomes clear to companies that their consumers really do care about stuff like this, they are unlikely to change their practices. Generally though, most companies value consumer feedback, whether it is positive or negative. After all, many spend millions soliciting that type of input through surveys, so it is pretty clear that they do ultimately listen to consumers and it is important (and generally easy) to log onto their websites and use the "contact us" option to voice our opinions!