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The holiday challenge: Opening the package

In recent years I have learned to be careful when opening boxes that arrive at my house at Christmas time. Open them with too much gusto and out spills a lavalike flow of those annoying foam packaging peanuts used to provide cushioning inside shipping boxes.

Light as air, the darn things go everywhere. And once they fall out of the box, they mysteriously take on a static charge that makes them stick to everything.

You know how next Christmas you'll still be finding needles from this year's Christmas tree? Well next Christmas I'll still be finding foam peanuts under the sofa or behind the books on the bookcase. These things can't be good for the environment, because you can't get rid of them.

That's why this year, when I gingerly pulled open one of those Christmas boxes, I was excited by what I found inside. No peanuts. Instead, the cushioning material inside was a few small plastic bags filled with nothing but air.

How clever, I thought. Some creative, enterprising individual _ I imagine this person as irritated by foam peanuts as I am _ had found an easy-to-produce, uncomplicated solution to the problem of how to cushion items for shipping. No foam peanuts. No reams of paper. No bubble wrap _ which employs the same theory of encapsulated air, but is more complicated and can take years off your life if you step on it in the dark.

Just air in a bag. Brilliant.

This experience started me thinking about other annoying packaging products (hey, it's the holidays). Sometimes I think the goal of the packaging industry is to keep us out of its products. Think I'm exaggerating? Just tell me this: How many tools and how much cursing were required at your house this year to get the holiday turkey or ham unwrapped so you could cook it?

You probably have your own list of packages you love to hate. Here's mine.

+ Someone who never cooks must have invented the little glass jars in which spices are sold. Have you noticed that all of them have openings too small for a standard measuring teaspoon? Would it have killed them to make the opening just a little bit bigger?

+ Many modern packaging innovations are great ideas that fail miserably in the consumer's hands. Let's talk bacon. "Open here," the package says, showing a place where the two pieces of plastic are supposedly left separated so they can be peeled apart to open the package. But the opening isn't there. You search all around the package for an opening. In frustration, you throw down the package and go get the scissors.

+ I'm sure the companies that bottle ketchup and mustard and salad dressings thought they had a grand idea when they replaced screw-off lids with pop-up lids. No more searching all over the kitchen for the lost lid to the ketchup bottle. With this innovation, the lid stays on the bottle. Only one problem: They neglected to build into the lid design enough of a lip so you can easily pull the top open. After your fingers slide off a few times, you are tempted to employ leverage _ translation: something sharp _ which you then wedge into the crack in the lid. You can lose fingers this way. Do the inventors of these bottle tops ever try them at home?

+ Have you noticed how merchandise packages seem to be getting bigger and bigger and the merchandise inside smaller and smaller? This makes me downright peevish. Are the packaging designers just wasteful, or are they trying to fool us into thinking we are getting more product? I bought a little bottle of eye drops _ a very little bottle. The box was so much bigger that it had a little cardboard cradle inside to hold the tiny bottle in place. Why? Why?

+ Small electronics items often are sealed in hard plastic packages that hang on a hook in the store. I guess because these items are small and could be easily hidden by a shoplifter, the packages are designed to be impenetrable. You can't pull them open. Scissors won't cut the hard plastic. A hacksaw _ that's the ticket.

+ Shrink wrap. Need I say more?

Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at