art design history pragmatic historian preservation product packaging

Noodle Packaging & Preservation

Do you see what I see?

Front side of box of Great Value bowtie pasta, July 2021.
Front side of box of Great Value bowtie pasta, July 2021.

 

Back of box of Great Value bowtie pasta, July 2021.
Back of box of Great Value bowtie pasta, July 2021.

 

Front of box of Great Value half-length angel hair pasta, July 2021.
Front of box of Great Value half-length angel hair pasta, July 2021.

Both the front and back sides of these boxes of Great Value bowtie pasta and half-length angel hair pasta show pictures of the pasta. Yay! That means I know what I’m buying.

What makes me more excited is what these boxes don’t have. They are lacking the plastic windows you find on most boxes of pasta. That makes these boxes easier to recycle because you don’t have to tear out the plastic in order to recycle the cardboard. And, of course, the plastic itself isn’t recyclable at all.

I don’t know what advertiser had the “brilliant” idea to insert a piece of plastic into noodle boxes so that customers could see the actual noodles instead of relying on the pictures on the boxes to figure out what they were buying. “Brilliant” is in quotes there because I’m sure it seemed like a great, novel idea at the time, but the long-term effects of having all these plastic windows in product packaging and envelopes was not considered.

Most plastics don’t ever decompose into constituent components that become inert or enhance the natural environment. Instead, they break into smaller and smaller parts and are eaten or absorbed by plants and animals, including human beings, where they tend to have negative health effects. If we can do away with unnecessary plastics, like the windows in noodle boxes, the planet will be in better shape for it.

You might be wondering, “What’s Mary’s weird little obsession with product packaging? How does it relate to anything else she talks about?”

Well, other than my mind being the natural unifying force for everything I think about and “Without Obligation” being a place I can brain dump all of it, there is a big connection between product packaging and art and history.

Package design is an art form that takes skill to do well. Because packaging seems so mundane, we don’t often think of it as art, but someone has to make choices about what is going to appear on product packaging, from the fonts, words, colors and images to the size, shape and materials used.

The intersection of package design and art is an easy connection to make, but for me the deeper connection is between package design and history. Not necessarily in terms of how certain materials are indicative of particular eras, though that is interesting in and of itself and could be explored be enterprising historians, but through the preservation aspect of history.

If we didn’t preserve anything from the past, it’d be difficult to study history. Museums are filled with documentary evidence of the past, as well as three-dimensional collections, a catchall term for the items we use in everyday life that wind up in museums.

Museums, however, have limited space (no matter how big they are) and they can’t take everything. From this standpoint, it is beneficial that certain things decompose or break down easily. That means we don’t have to feel any guilt about not accepting such items for collections. We already have enough guilt about turning away good items that don’t fit our missions or that we have too many of already. (Typewriters and other office equipment, for example.)

Items that are made of numerous materials, what we might call mixed media, are incredibly challenging for museums to preserve because different materials call for different preservation environments and they degrade at different rates. So, that noodle box with the plastic window is going to be harder to preserve long-term than the one that is all cardboard.

There’s a fragility to many plastics that causes them to easily break over time. Other plastics, like polyvinylchloride (PVC), off-gas and warp over time. PVCs, in fact, are not recommended as storage material for preservation purposes because of these qualities. There was a time when PVC photo albums were all the rage. They were a disaster, often becoming sticky and interacting poorly with photos stored in them.

When I think about my museum’s collections as a whole, plastic items, for as ubiquitous as they are today, aren’t as highly represented as other materials, like wood, metal, and fabrics. (Some of the fabrics are likely polyester blends, with polyester being a form of plastic.)

Some of this lack of representation by plastic is due to the general age of most of our collection, which is from the pre-plastics era. Some of it is due to the fact that people see plastic as disposable, because that is how it’s been represented and used within our products and product packaging. It’s not meant to last and people don’t see plastic items as being worthy of preservation so they don’t offer them to museums.

When thinking about package design and preservation and museums and the environment, my fervent wish is that products and product packaging that are created with the intent of being single-use be designed so that they quickly decompose to feed nature. If that can’t be accomplished, I’d like for these items to be easily reused or recycled.

Museums have more than enough stuff to preserve that was created to last. For the good of the environment, we don’t need to be able to save noodle boxes with plastic windows … and most museums aren’t making disposable product packaging a collections priority anyway. (With the exception of museums dedicated to particular businesses or industries.)

When I discuss product packaging, know that it isn’t simply a frivolous distraction. There’s a lot more going on in my mind concerning the topic, even if it’s not readily apparent.

Kudos to Great Value for losing the plastic windows in their noodle boxes. Also, I think that half-length angel hair pasta is brilliant.

Thoughtful comments welcome.