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Weblog Entry

Reduce?

August 27, 2007

As is the trend, I’ve lately been a lot more conscious about my levels of consumption. Usually just simple things like saying no to a plastic bag when possible and just carrying things home with me, or choosing produce that’s travelled a few less miles to get to my fridge. Nothing terribly significant on a one-person scale, but stuff that makes a bit of difference if a lot of people are doing it.

Of course I’m aware that there’s waste occurring behind the scenes in the retail channel. Goods need to be manufactured, byproducts need to be disposed of, items need fuel and containers for shipping, etc. Okay, that’s a given. But when stores order in bulk it’s an opportunity to cut down on some of that, whether that means making less trips, using less boxes, or otherwise.

Today really threw that into sharp relief. A couple of weeks back Apple came out with a new keyboard, and due to the local Mac retailers not receiving their shipments immediately, I decided to order direct from Apple. I picked up the box today, and expecting something vaguely keyboard-sized, I nearly choked when the receptionist pulled out a rather large box. Inside of which was another box. Inside of which was another box. Not to mention the plastic. Observe:

Many layers of packaging before finally reaching the keyboard.

Figure: The seven levels of hell product packaging.

That a box needs to be protected by another box seems mad enough, but this is Apple after all; we wouldn’t want to damage the pristine cardboard. It’s the next level of the shipping container and padding that really makes my brain hurt. I’m chalking it up to standard-sized shipping boxes, and this was simply the one that happened to have enough room to house the factory box. But you’d think the factory box ought to be good enough for the sake of shipping, no? Looks like I have yet another reason to avoid ordering tangible objects off the web.

Don’t even get me started on those evil Space Devil plastic packages.


Ash Haque says:
August 27, 16h

That’s pretty bad, but doesn’t even come close to 300 page iPhone bills

August 27, 16h

Yeah, I got my iWork disc wrapped in a good couple of layers as well.. For a moment I thought I’d gotten a Mac Mini, when the lady at the post office brought it to me… ;P

Love the illustration, btw! (The Apple logo is a bit skewed, though, but that’s just minor nit-picking…)

August 27, 16h

That’s pretty harsh… lucky for you, I countered your rediculous packaging by walking into a store and walking out without a receipt, without a bag, and only step #5 of your lovely diagram :)

cam c. says:
August 27, 16h

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe the outer box was the smallest one wide enough to encase the long-ish keyboard, but that’s just insane.

Nice illustrations by the way – I like that you channelled your anger toward their shipping practices into some old-school bitmap graphics!

Dave S. says:
August 27, 16h

@Ash Hague - “doesn’t even come close to 300 page iPhone bills”

Yeah, thank god we have Rogers up here in Canada and not AT&T, what with their totally zero-impact iPhone bills. (though, in case you missed it, AT&T stopped doing that - http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,136338-c,iphone/article.html )

@John Arnor G. Lom - “The Apple logo is a bit skewed”

Isometric perspective kind of demanded that, but I know what you’re saying. And, thanks!

cam c. says:
August 27, 16h

Oh, I forgot to ask… when are you going to do the 16x16 pixel version of the illustration? :)

August 27, 16h

In my experience, people seem to prefer pristine product boxes to non-pristine ones. We’re all taught not to judge a book by it’s cover, but more often than not, we learn if there’s smoke there’s a fire. So I guess people instinctively associate the condition of the box with the condition of the contents. So I can understand the whole notion of wanting to protect the product box (even though I don’t necessarily think it’s worth the resources wasted on it).

It gets far worse than that. My new mobile phone came in a nice shrink wrapped product box with good padding inside to protect the contents. And thank god, the online retailer had more sense than to stick it inside another box.

But when you open the package, you see the phone charger inside it’s own little box. So are the manuals and the accompanying CD-ROM. Now why in the world do you want to further protect the charger and manuals which are already inside a well padded shrink wrapped box? Does someone really think the phone might go crazy of claustrophobia and start eating at the charger/manuals?

Perhaps these are artifact of a rather insensitive manufacturing process where the chargers and the manuals are manufactured separately, put in individual boxes and sent to a different location to be put together inside the product package?

Either way, yes, it is rather insane that boxes need to be protected by other boxes.

Samir says:
August 27, 16h

I have it on good authority that those seven layers of packaging are all in the interest of protecting the extremely delicate and quantum-flux-tachyon-powered Apple key. It has to do with relativity and stuff …

Apple makes all the right generic noises ( http://www.apple.com/environment/ ), and like many other big companies falls short on actual performance and action { http://www.wired.com/gadgets/mac/news/2006/04/70739 } on those warm and fuzzy environmental issues.

We don’t really take all that boulderdash about global warming seriously do we? It’s all a conspiracy by the scientists for bigger surf board budgets, I tell you! Now if some computer manufacturer could produce a laptop computer that was powerd by a 500bhp 8-litre petrol engine that could do 0-60mph in 2.04 seconds and pack that in 7 layers of industrial dressing, we’d have a real big seller on our hands.

I smell an ipod beater.

9
David Robarts says:
August 27, 16h

I wonder if the unusual proportions of the keyboard was the trigger for the outer box. Three years ago I ordered a PowerBook and iPod from Apple online. I know that the Powerbook box was shipped in a protective, cardboard sleeve (I still have both boxes) and I believe the iPod was shipped the same way. I can’t imagine Apple taking a step backward environmentally without some good reason.

August 27, 17h

I was befuddled by the same thing when I ordered my keyboard. I thought maybe it was a one-off thing, like they ran out of regular boxes at the shipping center.

I’ve been a bit conflicted lately about the tradeoff between the convenience of online ordering and the amount of waste that goes into packing individual items up and flying them around in 747s. Sure I’m saving a trip in a car to a big box store in the suburbs, but it’s kind of depressing when that one audio adapter arrives packed in a box five times its size filled with packing material.

Seems like there’s some room for one of the big online retailers to innovate in a super-lightweight, space efficient, flexible-for-all-sizes packaging system.

August 27, 18h

Good discussion here.

What the packing materials are made from is a huge factor though too. Reduce is good; reuse is 10x better.

What really tweaks me is how much recyclable stuff gets thrown away by ignorant or lazy people—eg aluminum cans, receipts, etc.—even though the recycle bin is 2 feet away. I’m not sure what’s worse—being lazy or being ignorant/oblivious. I’m sure some of you all have seen these people… Reduce means nothing if everyone doesn’t recycle the stuff they already get.

Apple’s improved their packaging thus far at least using cardboard instead of stryrofoam but yet there are some people who probably end up throwing that stuff away instead of sorting it into their recyclables, along with their paper.

As for Wilson’s comment above, depending on how far away you drive to the store, I’d actually give the nod to online shopping. I can tell you one thing: FedEx and UPS do not use consumer 747s for transporting materials—the versions they use are for transporting goods. And lots of them. Ditto that for trucks. And who says your shipment is by Jet… I use ground shipping all the time. For every gallon you waste in fuel going to the store, those big trucks can save 5 due to the economies of scale. (Think carpooling except for packages.)

Robert says:
August 27, 18h

I’d rather have to reuse / recycle some cardboard than get a broken product that I’d have to ship back, then get the item resent (still risking breakage). I never hurts to have a couple extra cardboard boxes around. Once a DHL shipped car stereo component my ex-boss ordered looked as though it had been dropped in an ankle deep puddle, then tossed around a bit. Any extra space between a shipper’s hands and my product is a plus. That said, I still like buying from a local store. There’s nothing better than walking out of a store with a physical object after you just traded currency. The time between the online-payment and the physical object makes the giddiness of the purchase wane.

13
Michael says:
August 27, 19h

My MacPro came in a very tight setup. Good protection not a lot of spare room.
I was also impressed with Adobes CS3 suite. Small and very cost effective on the branding. Fairly nice looking too with the switchable branding. The outer box was very well designed.

Martin says:
August 27, 19h

Is the new keyboard good? I tried it briefly in a store here in Denmark but you can’t buy them loose yet as they only come with the new iMac. I can’t wait to hopefully replace the old white plastic trash keyboard.

Dave S. says:
August 27, 21h

@Martin - “Is the new keyboard good?”

So far so good. I’ve had a MacBook for over a year so I’ve adjusted to the lower profile key style, plus the smaller angle is going to be a nice break on my fingers. Still have to look down a bit more than usual, but that should go away soon.

George says:
August 27, 22h

I fully agree. My local bakers wanted to wrap a loaf of bread in a clear plastic bag, then put it in a paper bag and then put it in a plastic bag.

To be fair to Apple they are making an effort though
http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/tasty-apple-news-020507

We should be demanding less packaging from everyone though whether they are bakers or hardware vendors.

17
Karen says:
August 27, 22h

I recently ordered a body pillow from Amazon. It arrived in a huge box, of which half the space was taken up by, get this, Amazon’s airbags for padding. It was amusing in a very sad way.

As for your keyboard box, if you were giving it as a gift would you really feel comfortable giving a beat up box? Maybe companies could offer an “I don’t care about the box’s condition” packing option for orders that aren’t gifts.

August 27, 23h

From what I heard, some postal workers like to play with the boxes they get, throwing them around and such. And if that’s even remotely true, I sure am glad to get as many protection boxes as possible.

Also, as some people noted, the boxes are made of cardboard, which is recyclable. I have an exam on this tomorrow, so did you know 93% of packaging paper/cardboard is made from recycled paper? So as long as you’re aware enough to throw this cardboard into a recycling bin, not much damage has been made to the woods. And another thing.. Paper industry claims being only good for the woods, since they clean up the dead trees and branches, rather than chopping the growing ones. This way they make space for new, fresh trees. I’m not quite sure this is really so, but it is a view from a different perspective.

About the plastic… well, that’s bad.

August 28, 00h

My one was shipped in the factory box — nothing more. As you can see here: http://julianschrader.de/20070821-review-apples-new-aluminum-keyboard/

And I love this thing!

Leon says:
August 28, 02h

No, no, no! You got it all wrong here! Apple’s handing you a nice big container, allowing you to collect all your paper waste and deliver it to a recycling center in one recyclable box!

Oh, and I’m conveniently forgetting about the double shrinkwrapping here… ;)

Ian Lloyd says:
August 28, 02h

This irritates the heck out of me too. One place that does get it right is a VW parts supplier I use. The parts need to be protected, and they are often strangely shaped, so if I order a few items, I often get a big box with a lot of packing. However, they don’t use polystyrene - inside the big box are my items nestled in cardboard box material that has been part shredded . They have a machine that shreds the cardboard but not into strips - the sheet remains in one piece but has a series of cuts, making it appear like wicker/weaved. It provides padding but is good re-use of materials and can itself be recycled again.

August 28, 03h

I once ordered a piece of software. I was very surprises, when the mail man handed me a box which seemed capable of holding at least five copies of the latest Harry Potter book, and almost didn’t weight anything.
I opened up the box to find the CD-ROM just underneath the cardboard - it wasn’t even in a jewel case just in one of those paper sleeves.
The rest of the humongous box was filled with plastic airbags…

That is about the most retarded packaging I have ever experienced.

23
Mike Shaffer says:
August 28, 05h

I agree that the amount of over packaging seems like a bit of overkill (loved the comment about the Amazon pillow!)…but having a little more protection for the product is usually not a bad thing.

Back in the dark ages, (early 90’s, way before the Apple Store…) I worked for a distribution company that warehoused Apple products to ship to Apple resellers. We constantly received returns of product from our customers stating that they couldn’t sell it to their customers because the boxes were scuffed. Not ripped, dinged or damaged, just scuffed. So naturally, the overbox became a neccessity. Fast forward to the 2000’s and now Apple is producing beautiful packaging that makes the overbox an absolute must. Then the distributor throws that in a common size overbox of their own. It’s stupid, but it’s cheaper for everyone involved that your keyboard arrive without damage. And if a few trees have to die in the process, so be it. [Their attitude, not mine…I could live without about three quarters of the packaging in this world..]

August 28, 07h

“No, no, no! You got it all wrong here! Apple’s handing you a nice big container, allowing you to collect all your paper waste and deliver it to a recycling center in one recyclable box!”

If it were intentional, the box would be $40, black, and labelled iRecycle. Duh. ;)


Has anyone tried the new apple keyboard with a PC yet? I’m curious to know if it’s still a solid product, since my Logitech DiNovo w/laser mouse has given me nothing but grief since I bought it last year.

August 28, 07h

By far the worst packing evil are those damn polystyrene peanuts everyone seems to use nowadays. HUGE boxes with tiny items are stuffed full of these little devils that seem to stick to everything except the trash can.

My wife and I have started using the paper from our document shredder to pack things, after mixing it up a bit for security. With so much junk mail our household generates at least 1 whole trash bag of the stuff every week, so it makes for a limitless supply of packing material.

26
Ole says:
August 28, 07h

If the postal service could start pretending that the packages might be worth something I suppose that Apple et. al. could use less packaging for shipment.

Szymon says:
August 28, 07h

:-)
In Japan in every descent shop you always get at least 4 layers wrap on every item you buy ( not food of course ). It is some kind of custom to wrap everything nicely several times before you give it to someone

28
Bart says:
August 28, 08h

The belgian state post ( http://www.post.be ) would still succeed in handling this package in such a way that your keyboard would be heavily damaged ;-)

This is only to tell that if you could be sure that packages would be handled in a not too rough manner - this kind of überpackaging would not be necessary.


August 28, 09h

After being in PEI for a week, Dave, I couldn’t believe their stance on waste management. Beside every garbage can, even the ones in the middle of no where (on bike trails and such), there was also a compost and recycling bin. I live in Toronto, so to see this kind of initiative really makes me happy.

In fact, a little bit of the ‘Islander’ attitude from out there has rubbed off on me.

30
louis w says:
August 28, 09h

love this post.

i would like to start making diagrams like this for everything i order online. you should come up with icons that can get assembled to create flowcarts for packaging :)

August 28, 10h

That is ridiculous. I’ve had some silly oversized boxes being sent when I ordered stuff on the internet, but nothing this bad.

And I also try to reuse plastic bags. I’m glad Tesco introduced their bag reuse programme.

When already have a bag when I go into a shop I try to stop them giving me yet another bag, but sometimes they’re just to damn quick and they force their own bag on you. Quite annoying. Too often I end up with 4-5 bag, each containing a small item, all which easily would fit into one.

Stv. says:
August 28, 10h

Yeah - Jeff got that same keyboard and box. I was mad enough to write apple, who immediately wrote me back and said they were taking it up with their distribution co, who were the guilty party. So a sortofa passing of the buck.

DannyB says:
August 28, 11h

That is absurd … but imagine if Dell did it what it would look like …

I guess it’s for your protection …

Jay says:
August 28, 15h

Only Dave Shea can even make the “7 levels of hell” look so pleasing on the eyes. Very classy illustration .. can’t say the same about the packaging :).

35
trish says:
August 28, 22h

I’ve had a similar experience ordering just a keyboard iSkin from the online Apple store… Came in a box more than 4x its size, and it’s definitely something that doesn’t need a whole lot of protecting (it’s made of.. what, rubber?)

Love the illustration though. =]

August 28, 23h

I had the same adventure with an IBM notebook that came in a nearly one m^3 box.
Think that’s owned to marketing - or probably each tier adds economic value :-)

Gustav says:
August 29, 00h

This one is for Trish

I found a company called KB Covers that has tons of Apple Keyboard Covers….I got a Photoshop one and I love it. It came in an envelope with minimal waste…I wonder why Apple doesn’t carry them? I like them a lot better than iSkin.

August 29, 05h

That is a poor showing. In contrast we ordered 5 of the new keyboards and a few other Apple things. It all arrived in one shipping box, tightly packed. Each keyboard then had just its own wrapping box and a bit of plastic over the keys.

39
Johnny B says:
August 29, 08h

Hi Dave,

One thing I kind of discovered after starting my job of the “web master” for a manufacturing company… packaging is a pretty serious thing.

Trust me, the MFG’s would NOT add such unbelievable packaging schemes if it didn’t HAVE to.

*Have* to being either a) they have to pass requirements for packaging, such as the “drop test” where you drop a box from a certain height and it cannot smash the inside contents to some degree (I don’t know the specifics, I’m the web guy, not the engineers who have all kinds of funny looking equipment with moving parts hammering and pounding on boxes).

MFG’s, like any company, are trying to maximize profit. There’s a huge investment in packaging on getting is as cheap as possible without allowing any damage to the product itself. I wouldn’t be surprised that it’s actually cheaper for the company to just toss it in a big box, with cheap padding (or air bags, like Amazon does) than to try and design a very small, minimal mass box that can protect the product and pass the required tests.

Thus, “waist” = “profit” sadly and unintuitive. Which does bring up a real good point. Those who are trying hard to micromanage their lives to be as green as possible are probably better off buying from brick and mortar stores than ordering online. Those online stores already received their bulk orders in protected boxes and end up *re-packaging* a product to send to you.

Cheers,
Johnny B

August 29, 11h

That is crazy, at least it gave you a nice excuse to draw up some nifty icons, to better communicate what happened…

No but really that is a HUGE waste of resources.

41
Carlos Bernal says:
August 31, 11h

Dave,

You said it right “conscious about my levels of consumption” is a trend may I add a feel good trend. I bet you spent more resources creating your packaging illustration on your computer and the comments you posted and the comments being posted on your site than it took to make all that packaging!

While I agree the packaging is overkill; I don’t follow the carbon footprint thing because it’s just a silly trend.

paul says:
August 31, 12h

i’m sick of over-wrapping with plastic on basically everything we consume, from food to electronics. one of the main reasons my band is releasing our album digital-only is because of all the plastic that goes into CD packaging. it’s ridiculous…

even at the grocery store, it’s all in 2x the packaging it needs to be in.

September 02, 00h

Reminds me of buying a very expensive WiFi module for a Toshiba laptop. This is a module about half the size of a folded-out matchbook, mind you. When it arrived I was a bit surprised to get a cardboard shipping carton about the size and weight of seven average paperbacks. And why was that? Because the card shipped with six paperbacks worth of Installation Manual, Warranty, Specifications, Compliance Documentation, and more. Each one a paperback in itself, the card, which weighed in at aboyt 30 grams from memory, arrived weighing over a kilo…

Now THAT is overpackaging…

44
Anonymous says:
September 04, 11h

Well, when items are manufactured on the opposite side of the globe, it takes a little extra packaging to protect it on the trek to the consumer. I especially hate the packaging that’s impossible to open without self injury because of the materials used–which also makes me think twice before returning it because I’ve done so much damage opening the packaging.

Perhaps that’s another part of it–complicated packaging discourages returns?

45
Emibap says:
September 14, 09h

This reminds me of a DVD I ordered from amazon some time ago. When it arrived (at Buenos Aires) I had to pay an extra fee to the post office due to “overweight”. It was just a single DVD on its case, and I ended up paying half of its value on the package…
Sometimes it can be like buying a can of beans. The beans are cheaper than the can.

46
James Bennet says:
September 22, 10h

I got an SD card off of crucial and it came in a box full of those little white balls. The box was the same size as the one my toshiba laptop came in.

Andie says:
March 23, 10h

This is a great article, we received a cd the other day with images on from a client to enable us to upload their images on to the corporoate web site. It came in a 3ft by 1 ft cardboard box, inside the box was bubble wrap, inside the bubble wrao was a padded envelope, inside the padded ebvelope was a small cardboard box inside the cardboard box was an old music cd jewel and inside the jewel was the clients own cd, It made us laugh they had used all the packaging but used a second hand jewel to save money

May 13, 01h

I think there is actually a law now where if you believe that a product is excessively packaged, you can actually sue them.

I remember after watching some environmental programme, walking around Tescos and thinking exactly what is overpackaged.

I looked at Pizzas, which some have boxes around them when frozen - do they really need to be there? Would it not be better to have a leaflet that the customer picks up with the pizza for reference when cooking? Also things like Beauty products i have noticed, you get the bottle, and sometimes this comes with outer cardboard packaging on, with perhaps no information on apart from the same as what is on the bottle. These are purely for presentation. How many people could we sue for overpackaging products. By the looks of it Apple could be a winner with the amount of packaging they have. Instead of producing layers upon layers, why don’t they design a simple box instead?

Thomas says:
January 25, 16h

Things have changed a lot since you wrote this article. It’s good to see supermarkets (in the UK) charging for carrier bags now as they become more aware of the need to cut down on packaging, although many manufacturers still insist on bulky packaging using unsustainable plastics.