The strange lure of plastic packaging

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I have finally perfected an invention that will revolutionize the grocery business and save my own sanity. Called the Cob-Lock™, it’s a hinged container that secures one ear of fresh corn. You can see the corn, but you can’t touch. Once taken home, the Cob-Lock™—which is 30 per cent recyclable—can only be removed with a razor-sharp carpet knife. Best of all, from a business perspective, it should only add 50 cents to the cost of each cob.

Regular schmucks might scoff at my concept, but grocery professionals will know I’m on to something here. They will say, “This guy’s a freakin’ genius!” because my invention will defeat the most destructive force in all of grocery.

I refer, of course, to the corn rippers, those raccoon-fingered shoppers who are unable to choose a cob of corn based on its appearance, as one would with an apple or a kiwi. Instead, they attack the helpless corn, clawing back husk and silk in search of the tiniest flaw. If a cob doesn’t look like a model of perfection manufactured in a German microchip factory—because of one blemish or a few dented kernels—it gets tossed on the pile to wither and expire like a beached porpoise. The double whammy is that, once ripped, that perfectly good corn is unsaleable—hey, who wants to buy some ripped-up corn? Or, for that matter, a thumb-dented tomato or an English cucumber, flexed to the breaking point and found wanting?

I once saw a sign placed under the tomatoes at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market that read: “Take it easy! This ain’t the sock bin at Honest Ed’s.” I thought it merely funny at the time, before my career in the cottage-country grocery biz. But now I see the awful truth: Left unchecked by stout packaging or an electric livestock prod, many people behave badly in a produce aisle. Some days, I actually feel bad for the fruit and veg, sitting there all vulnerable and delicate, utterly defenceless against the pokers and the rippers. The problem is so bad that, last year, Ontario’s soft-fruit people introduced a “tamperproof” container to keep shoppers from digging through baskets of peaches, squeezing and sniffing each one in search of some perverted form of peach perfection. The new packaging is brilliant, yet I personally witnessed fruit vandals who managed to crack them—it takes some effort—to make their own mix-and-match baskets. So for all these months I have been praying to Saint Christopher (the patron saint of fruit dealers) for his helpful guidance to make the Cob-Lock™ a commercial success.

I used to think that packaging was a bad thing. That was back in the ’90s, when people thought it might be a good idea to save the planet. They switched from white coffee filters to eco-friendly brown ones. They used cloth diapers instead of disposables and sought out phosphate-free detergent. String shopping bags, once the hallmark of stout Portuguese grannies, became enviro-hip fashion items. At Cottage Life, readers shared their recipes for cleaning products made from baking soda or vinegar. When the concept of recycling hit the scene, packaging was identified as a major villain. People were outraged and would leave plastic and cardboard at the store in protest. Those were heady times. Thankfully, they are over.

As a retailer, I love packaging. Not only because it physically protects the goods when shoppers start to behave like dump bears around the salad greens, but because consumers love the stuff. At our store, poorly packaged goods simply do not sell, even if the product inside is excellent. Recently, we noticed that things like loose green beans and baby potatoes were not moving. As an experiment, we portioned them into small plastic bags, and they sold like proverbial hotcakes. Loose zucchini? They flop. Zucchini plastic-wrapped in pairs? They fly out the door.

Nothing underscores how much cottagers love packaging—and pay handsomely for it—than plain old drinking water. One day, as I was carting a few hundred kilos of H2O into the store, a local builder sidled up with a bemused grin. “Every cottage I build comes with a $2,500 water treatment system,” he said. “And when I visit later they all have a bottled-water cooler in the kitchen.” Poor fellow. The concept that someone would choose to pay for the stuff rather than use the easily treated, inexhaustible supply from the lake was baffling to him. But I get it. Water from your own treatment system is mysterious and somehow not to be trusted. Like vaccinations. But water from someone else’s treatment system, once bottled and labelled, becomes pure and safe. It makes complete sense.

The less-is-more forces say that too much packaging is bad for the planet and that as a society we have become fear-driven and germophobic. This, of course, is utter hogwash, coming from people who would have us store propane gas in brown paper bags and fill our pockets with liquid honey. People in the grocery business know the truth: We should be afraid. Have you ever looked at a flat of eggplant and wondered, Who’s been touching that? Well, I can tell you: Twenty seconds ago it was being fondled by that guy with the Aeropostale shirt and the creepy Movember-in-January moustache. If anything, I think we need more packaging, a protective wrap around the actual package that you could dispose of at home while wearing disposable gloves. Overkill maybe, but I have observed that today’s parents are quite happy to let their children run screeching through retail establishments, touching everything in sight. Many of those children have filthy hands. Statistics tell us that some also have pink eye. I’m just saying.

According to my contact at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, using an electric livestock prod on paying customers has been shown to have a neg­ative effect on repeat business and gross revenues. It also terrifies them. So the way I see it, enhanced packaging is the way of the future. That’s why I’ll be busy this winter, developing the Blueberry-­Buckle™, the Avocado-Grotto™, and the Tater-Shield™, a trio of prototypes to round out my Food Guardian™ line of products. Because, let’s face it, fruit squeezers and corn rippers? And unruly children with pink eye? They aren’t going away any time soon.

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