'Unboxing' Videos Distract From the Real Problem of Packaging Waste

Screen capture. YouTube

What happens to the plastic, ribbon, cardboard, and glitter after the two-minute show is over?

‘Unboxing’ videos are a curious YouTube trend that involves filming the act of opening a newly purchased item. Viewers are able to see exactly how the item comes packaged and what it looks like from every possible angle. Meanwhile, the owner narrates the process, describing the feel, smell, and even emotions associated with the unboxing process.

The growth in popularity of these videos has led companies – mostly Internet-based – to beautify packaging “with brightly covered boxes, ribbons, and other cutesy delights that make the purchase feel extra special” (Racked). Stickers and glitter are not uncommon. The more appealing or unusual the packaging is, after all, the more YouTube unboxing videos will be made, which translates to sales.

There’s a dark flipside to all of this fun, however and that is the waste generated by superfluous packaging. Did you know that an estimated one-third of municipal waste comes from packaging? While a good chunk of that is likely food-related, it’s important to think about what happens to all those plastic bags, tape bits, ribbons, Styrofoam peanuts, cardboard boxes, and stickers after a parcel has been opened. Most ends up in the trash, and this adds up quickly.

Roughly 36 million tons of packaging waste hit landfills yearly after recycling efforts, according to The Guardian. Putting this into perspective, it’s equivalent to throwing away our bodyweight in packaging every 30 to 40 days.

Noah is a men’s streetwear brand that gives packaging a great deal of thought. In fact, it has gone against the flow to minimize packaging to a degree that upsets some customers. Its clothes are shipped in Kraft paper mailers, which occasionally tear open, delivering dirty or damaged products to customers. While acknowledging that this isn’t acceptable, Noah still does not want to jump on the plastic bandwagon and has reached out to the public to explain its rationale:

“We understand there’s value in the ‘unboxing experience.’ But when we ask ourselves what happens after enjoying that brief, throwback sensation of being a kid opening a present, when we wonder where all the hand-made paper, cleverly folded boxes, ribbons and glitter go, the answer is almost always the same: it gets tossed into the trash. Maybe some of it gets tossed into the recycling, but still. The whole thing lasts a maximum of 2-3 minutes. That’s a lot of waste for what is essentially a mini dose of drugs, a transient feeling that what we just bought, or the company we bought it from, is somehow superior, or that we are superior.”

It is a refreshing perspective to hear in a world that’s going increasingly crazy for online shopping. As Chavie Lieber points out in Racked, fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world after fossil fuel:

“The industry is only speeding up thanks to both fast fashion in general and e-commerce companies like ASOS and Boohoo that ship millions of packages a day, with shoppers often ordering several sizes because returns have become so easy.”

What would a solution look like?

First, aside from the obvious solution of buying less, you could shop locally instead of online. Then you’d be able to take an item home without any packaging at all.

Second, you can support those companies that take packaging seriously. Do some research before purchasing online, and remember that the act of inquiring is a powerful signal to a company.

Third, take action. If you get an overly packaged item, complain to the manufacturer and send it back. (This is what Bea Johnson, author of The Zero Waste Home, did with the packaging from her new Mac laptop.) Use social media to tell the world why you’re unhappy with wasteful packaging. Consider make an unboxing video that focuses on waste, rather than beauty and appeal!

In the meantime, Noah has explained its predicament to customers: “How much more are we willing to contribute to the world’s throw-away culture to honor the fact that you’ve bought something we’ve made?” It’s something we’d all do well to consider. Packaging is temporary. Focus on the item you’re buying, its quality and intrinsic beauty, rather than the shell in which it arrives.