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Under wraps

Edited version published in Sunday Magazine (30th August 2009)

I’ve been unwrapping online purchases, and I’m a little ruffled. Frustrated. Irritated, even. A little resentful, a little angry. Okay, I’m enraged. Enraged! It’s not because the bar mixer doesn’t look like the picture, or the special lash-lubing mascara is dry, or the CDs are scratched.

It’s because it’s taken me close to an hour to infiltrate the packaging. I felt as though I was playing a never ending game of pass the parcel, except I was the only one playing, and I already knew what treasure lay within. Please don’t ask me what the point was, because I don’t have an easy answer, and I might just bite your head off.

But I’m not alone. I am in fact suffering from wrap rage, defined by up to the minute online dictionary as ‘extreme anger caused by product packaging that is difficult to open or manipulate’. Exactly. I know that somewhere out there, a machine is laughing at me.

Characterized by stress, irrational behaviour, emotional volatility, agitation, spasms, improper use of available tools, and the big one, improper use of body parts, wrap rage is a malady peculiar to the modern shopper.

The present uprising of Christmas 2008 is a case in point. Instead of sitting around the tree fighting with each other, families across the country wrestled with the various byproducts of the packaging industry in a prolonged battle to get to their gifts. Reports of packaging induced paper cuts, wrist strain, temper tantrums and post traumatic stress disorder were at their highest this past January, and it’s no wonder. Packaging is out of control.

First there was the facade of lovingly (or hastily) applied wrapping paper with sundry bows, ribbons, sellotape and name tags. But the real danger – babushka-like layers of uber protective packaging - lurked within. You know the ones I mean.

Cardboard packed in around purchases like a stale club sandwich. Industrial strength staples more suited to a construction site than a shopping centre. Polystyrene in all its forms: extruded and expanded, shaped into frames and panels, and the dreaded foam balls which gravitate towards all objects within a 5 metre radius. Impenetrable clamshell cases with pitbullesque jaws, clinging to their charges like limpets on a rock. Sellotape and its residue of sticky... stickiness, trailing along like the excreta of some great mechanical snail. And twist ties - known as gangs when they’re bunched together - that can do all manners of harm.

I understand that products must be treated with the respect they deserve. After all, products are dangerous, and the consumer must be protected at all costs. It’s almost enough to make me leave the house in search of salvation – but the knowledge that I’ll have to deal with more packaging scares me off, lest I get sucked into a nightmarish vortex of retail therapy and wrap rage that goes something like:

Feel angered by hard to open packaging. Need a break. Go shopping. Buy attractive looking item in shiny box. Take attractive looking item in shiny box home. Attempt to extract attractive looking item from shiny box. Experience difficulty. Try different approach. Experience further difficulty. Turn shiny box upside down and manage to infiltrate the first of its many layers, but cut finger on shiny box in process. Swear. Get paring knife from kitchen while sucking on cut finger. Return to shiny box, cut through cardboard and perform obstetric-like extraction of product from shiny box, doing best to avoid balls of polystyrene foam. Mop brow.

Separate various component parts. Bite through layers of plastic surrounding each component part. Get plastic stuck in teeth. Attempt to extract plastic from teeth with cut finger. Cut through remaining plastic with paring knife. Rip plastic from component parts. Become tangled in plastic. Regulate breathing. Untangle self from plastic. Wrestle plastic guards from blades. Untwist twist ties from power cord whilst remaining alert to threat of attack by gangs. Assemble product. Need a break. Go shopping. Buy attractive looking item in shiny box. Return home feeling queasy. Begin again.

Despite the impression this self indulgent whining might be giving you, it’s not all about me. A sizeable portion of my rage is on behalf of the planet. Whoever coined the phrase plastic fantastic was tripping on the best acid the sixties had to offer – what am I supposed to do with all this packaging?

I had a soft spot for bubble wrap when I was seven, but I like my bubbles in a glass these days, and you can’t drink plastic - as proven by the thousands of misinformed turtles, penguins, and birds that seem to keep on trying. After a whimsical pop or two I stash it away with the rest of the bubble wrap that is taking over my cupboards, just in case I ever want to post a white elephant overseas. I have also amassed a menacing looking gang of twist ties that are threatening to do violence to the cutlery in my kitchen drawer, and I’m on the verge of pouring antacids into my recycling bin to ease its packaging induced indigestion. Is this the future?

Well, yes. Everything, even evolution, comes at a price, and wrap rage is just the latest cruel twist in the human condition’s journey through space and time. When you consider that shopping is to us what hunting and gathering, nomadism, and self sufficiency are and were to others, you’ve got to wonder. Did the ancients suffer hunt rage? Harvest rage? Herd rage?

There is hope. Wrap rage has been recognized by as an issue the very same who spawned it. Internet behemoth has rolled out a line of trademarked frustration-free packaging, promising easy to open recyclable boxes and a dearth of excess materials. Closer to home, the government has introduced the Packaging Covenant, which sounds like a religious order but is in fact a voluntary initiative by Government and Industry to reduce the environmental effects of packaging on the environment. Machines: 0. Humans: 1.