Why packaging matters: Alaster Yoxall on ageing populations and hard-to-open jars

Most of the food we buy comes in packaging that can be difficult to open. Photo credit: ThinkStock

Most of the food we buy comes in packaging that can be difficult to open. Photo credit: ThinkStock

By India Lloyd

Modern society is built on packaging. It may sound like an extreme statement, but consider how much of your day is spent accessing things in packaging.

Opening your bottle of milk and container of coffee each morning; unwrapping your sandwich and salad at lunch; popping open bottles of sauce or marinade for dinner; unpacking a new item that has arrived in the mail, after a night of online shopping.

Almost everything we eat, drink, or generally consume comes wrapped in paper, plastic, or glass. We rip, open, unwrap, unpack without a second thought. But Dr Alaster Yoxall says for large proportion of society, packaging presents a pressing problem.

Dr Yoxall has devoted his career to unraveling (pun intended) the difficulties of modern packaging, and how it affects our ageing population.

An Engineering Design Principal Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University’s Lab 4 Living, Dr Yoxall has been visiting the University of Wollongong as part of his research into the openability of food packaging and its impact on older consumers.

There are many factors that influence the packages we see: aesthetic design, ease of access, marketing, the ability of the packaging to protect the things inside, environmental impact, and, of course, cost. However, Dr Yoxall, who has been working on the issue with UOW researchers Ms Alison Bell and Dr Karen Walton, believes that packaging is still a major source of aggravation for consumers.

“It’s not out there to make your life frustrating, but that’s often what it does,” he said.

A University of Wollongong UIC International Links Grant and Global Challenges supported Dr Yoxall’s trip to UOW, under the theme of Living Well, Longer, which focuses on how society can deal with the implications of an ageing population.

Dr Alaster Yoxall, from Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Alaster Yoxall, from Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Yoxall explained that as people age, or are beset by chronic conditions, their dexterity and strength is reduced, and so therefore is their ability to access food in packaging.

“The number of older people is growing. We’re seeing the greatest demographic shift of our time around the world. But for many, the onset of chronic illness occurs in their 50s or 60s, so how do we mitigate that?,” Dr Yoxall said.

“As people age, there is a huge reduction in capabilities which creates real challenges in accessing packaging. There is a real market segmentation in packaging between what attracts younger people and older people but packaging design needs to be inclusive across the age spectrum.”

Dr Yoxall said the problem was particularly acute in hospitals, where an inability to open food packaging was impeding nutrition for some patients.

“Sixty per cent of hospital patients and 30 per cent of staff can’t open hospital food packaging,” Dr Yoxall said. “I’m analyzing the data collected by Alison Bell and Karen Walton regarding openability of hospital food packaging, from a packaging perspective. This will give us the knowledge to feed back to hospitals to improve this issue.”

Dismissing the notion that it is a trivial issue, Dr Yoxall said inaccessible packaging should not, and could not, be ignored by researchers and industry. The overall aim is to create packaging that is intuitive, ergonomic, and able to be accessed by people from across the demographic spectrum.

Opening jars can be difficult for many consumers. Photo credit: ThinkStock

Opening jars can be difficult for many consumers. Photo credit: ThinkStock

“For vulnerable populations, it is not trivial. It is often the difference between eating that day or not,” Dr Yoxall said. “Anecdotally, we’ve met a woman whose daughter visits her each week to open all her jars and packets. And people who have the man who delivers their groceries open all the packaging at the same time. 

“Vulnerable populations will only increase and this problem will need to be solved. We’re trying to save ourselves from doing this same job in 10 years’ time.”

Inaccessible packaging is not only prevalent in western society, Dr Yoxall added, but in countries around the world. He is currently working with researchers at Thailand’s Kasetsart University, based in Bangkok, to help overcome similar issues surrounding packaging in Thai society.

“Packaging is a global issue,” he said. “And it’s complex, there’s unlikely to be a  one size fits all solution.”

Watch Dr Yoxall’s seminar on inaccessible packaging here 



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