It took about two decades for the packaging creature known as the "oyster" or "clamshell" to conquer the world of consumer electronics. But the hard-to-open casings of plastic considered by many to be toxic could start to disappear soon, according to some experts in packaging and design.
Although clamshells remain widespread, a small but growing number of companies are housing products in packages that are not only easier to open, but manufactured more efficiently with recycled or recyclable ingredients.
Oyster packaging forms what may seem like a hermetic seal around a wide array of goods, including MP3 players, Webcams, USB drives, mice, headsets, software, printer cartridges, and batteries.
"Clamshell packaging is so over," said Wendy Jedlicka, a packaging designer. "We know it sucks. We're fixing that." Jedlicka belongs to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a group that met last week in San Francisco that has grown to more than 300 member organizations in a few years.
More than a handful of packaging manufacturers have introduced eco-friendly alternatives to oysters within the past several years.
However, retailers have favored the rigid clamshell casings that deter shoplifters, are easy and cheap to ship and store, and offer a peek of the product inside.
The expansion of big-box stores, particularly bulk outlets that lack display cases, will drive demand for clamshells by 5.3 percent each year to $2.7 billion in sales within the next two years, according to the Freedonia Group, a market research firm. At that pace, more than 8 billion oyster packs will be produced by 2015.
However, growth could be hampered by corporations' sustainability efforts, along with spikes in petroleum prices, the firm added. Despite the energy-intensive process of spinning plastics from fossil fuels, traditional plastics still remain cheaper than those from recycled or plant-based materials.
Although greener alternatives to clamshells are a small niche in the packaging world, they may win favor with the public for reasons totally unrelated to their environmental footprint.
Clamshells can make products impossible to free with bare hands. Some attempts at grappling with knives and scissors have led to amputated fingertips and severed tendons. "The degree of injuries can be pretty severe, depending on the frustration of getting a package open," said Melissa Barton, an emergency room physician at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit.
She sees at least one patient each week--more around Christmas--suffer cuts and worse, usually from box cutters and other tools used to puncture and pry open the packaging.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that there were some 6,500 emergency room visits related to plastic packaging in 2004.
Some packaging makers are creating resealable, snap-out, or perforated designs that could reduce the amount of wounds and cursing triggered by clamshells.
Despite those steps, environmental groups dislike the toxicity and waste of using virgin plastics for disposable purposes. Some people go to extremes to avoid plastic trimmings for everyday goods, but find few practical alternatives.
"Consumers are becoming much more sensitive to the environmental ramifications of excess packaging," said Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.
The magazine for two years published an "Oyster Awards" hall of shame for hard-to-open packaging. Last year's winner was an Oral-B electric toothbrush tucking clamshells into a tight plastic and cardboard shell.
There weren't enough changes in packaging to warrant awards for 2008, but Consumer Reports will focus on packaging sustainability later this year, Marks said.
Packaging accounts for nearly one-third of consumer garbage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And plastics comprise 12 percent of U.S. waste each year, but are rarely recycled, while some scientists fear that irresponsible dumping is making a plastic soup of the world's oceans.
The European Union attempts to regulate packaging design and waste. California's Rigid Plastic Packaging Container Law encourages the use of recycled plastics. Yet such rules are rare in the United States, where businesses rather than government are driving dramatic changes.
"We're aggressively attacking the clamshell market," said Jeff Kellogg, a vice president of MeadWestvaco. Its Natralock line of packaging features a pop-out, glue-free clear plastic display "blister" surrounded by paperboard of one-third recycled content. Plant-based plastics could also be used.
Compared with clamshells, Natralock packages cost up to 30 percent less and weigh half as much, which cuts shipping expenses, Kellogg added. They also require less energy to seal in a factory, and can run on traditional equipment.
Competing products include Rohrer's Eco-View Pak, a mix of chipboard with a plastic display bubble.
Winterborne's Enviroshell packaging mixes a recycled-plastic blister with cardboard of more than two-thirds recycled material and soy-based inks. The board and plastic aren't fused together, enabling both to be recycled.
Enviroshell packaged the Xbox 360 when it launched in Wal-Mart stores in 2005. Toshiba began using the packaging in 2006 for storage devices.
Wal-Mart's sustainability goals (PDF) include reducing the amount of packaging in its stores by 5 percent by 2013. Its Sam's Club outlets halved the amount of packaging for digital media in 2006.
Phasing out PVC
In the United States, those attempts would remove millions of pounds of landfill-bound trash as well as wasted energy and greenhouse gas pollution, the equivalent of taking 213,000 trucks off the road every year, according to Wal-Mart. To help meet a goal of becoming packaging neutral by 2025, Wal-Mart's packaging scorecard measures suppliers' sustainability.
The retailer is also one of many phasing out toxic PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, formerly the main material for oyster packaging. Its manufacture and disposal is believed to release cancer-linked chemicals, including dioxins.
Other brands shunning PVC include Target, Sears, Johnson & Johnson, and Bath & Body Works. Wal-Mart and Apple worked together to develop iPod packaging free of PVC. Microsoft discontinued PVC in software packaging in 2005 and has since stopped using clamshells in half of its packed products.
PET, the common replacement for PVC, is widely considered better but still ecologically harmful. Plastics from PET, or polyethylene terephthlate, are also commonly used for soda bottles, and are being recycled for use in electronics packaging.Reducing packaging altogether
Another alternative to plastic clamshells is a reduction of packaging--or a lack of it altogether. Music and software can be downloaded digitally, for instance. And some stores opt to keep pricey products behind a counter while showcasing the samples, reducing the need for so many plastic display casings.
Participation in the Sustainable Design Coalition by businesses across a swath of industries, including electronics, clothing, cosmetics, and food, proves that progress in packaging is accelerating, according to Scott Ballantine, a packaging engineer at Microsoft. He has driven the use of PET recycled from Coke and Pepsi bottles for use in packaging.
Ballantine said he imagines that producers might eventually institute take-back programs for packaging, such as those Dell and HP have instituted to collect used electronics and accessories.
"Maybe someday there will be an 'unpacking' station in the Costcos and Wal-Marts of the world where customers can remove the packaging and companies can collect the materials," he said.