The evolution of accessible packaging

As awareness of arthritis grows, the industry is working to make packaging more accessible to consumers suffering from the condition. Rosie Lintott explores recent developments in accessible packaging.

Around ten million people in the UK live with arthritis, a condition causing pain and fatigue which can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks such as cooking and getting dressed - or handling packaged products.

According to the Research Institute for Disabled Consumer’s (RiDC) head of development, Caroline Jacobs, awareness of arthritis has been growing since the 1990s, supported by the work of charities such as Arthritis Care (now known as Versus Arthritis). The RiDC is a disability-led organisation which has, for 50 years, been working to help businesses, the government, charities and organisations to improve their products and services for disabled and older consumers.

Accessible packaging regulations

The RiDC works with companies to make food packaging more accessible. Working with retailer Marks & Spencer and charity Age UK, the institute commissioned testing of packaging known as ‘frustration-free’ packaging with members of its consumer research panel in 2011. The institute has also worked with Nampak, a European manufacturer of plastic bottles, to assess the usability of existing and prototype milk bottles.

Over the time the testing was in progress, an international industry standard known as Packaging Accessible Design – Ease of Opening (BS ISO 17480:2018) was also being developed for companies to test their packaging. Packaging is tested twice with a minimum of 20 users aged 65-80 years to evaluate it in terms of accessibility and ease of use.

“I do realise it’s very difficult because companies have to weigh up a lot of competing regulations, but I think that it just makes good sense to have packages that you can open easily,” says Jacobs. “People supplying packaging have a lot of regulations to go through when designing their product, including environmental issues, food wastage, and food getting damaged before it’s bought and making packaging secure.

“All of these regulations work against ‘ease of opening’, making it a decision for suppliers to weigh up whether ease of opening is important to them and their product.”

The problem with voluntary standards

People with arthritis may find some packaging difficult to open due to pain, weakness, and stiffness in their hands which can make it difficult to grip and hold things. According to Versus Arthritis, this is particularly problematic with formats such as glass jars with metal lids, small screw-top bottles and cartons, and containers with seal lads and small tabs.

Although regulations exist, they are not always applied. The ‘ease of opening’ standard, for example, is voluntary, which means companies trying to make their packaging accessible for people with disabilities can use it, but are under no obligation to do so.

The ‘ease of opening’ standard is voluntary, which means companies can use it, but are under no obligation to do so.

The standard is not complicated to comply with and the test results show the strength needed open packs, and whether the labelling is easy enough to read.

“When you test to the standard it’s very easy to see what should be different about the packaging,” says Jacobs. ”But it requires the industry to want to do that and to put the regulation in place even if it is voluntary.”

Given its availability and recognition as a standard for compliance, Jacobs hopes more companies will start to use it. She also hopes to see the standard become compulsory to make it easier and safer for consumers with disabilities to prepare and eat their food. If packaging is not accessible, people with arthritis, or any other disability that causes problems with their motor functions, may resort to sharp instruments to open it, which can result in injury.

The future of accessible packaging

While implementing yet another standard may seem like a burden to companies, one of the potential benefits is increased sales. Based on the research conducted with Marks & Spencer and the resulting customer feedback, the RiDC found that having packaging that is hard to open deters people from buying from that company in the future.

“It needs to get down the supply chain, but with an ageing population it just makes good business sense to have products that people love and enjoy opening and using”, says Jacobs.

One of the potential stumbling blocks for packaging companies is that they need the cooperation of the retailers they supply to in order to make the necessary adaptations.

“It is a long chain that this regulation needs to go down, and getting permission from companies and suppliers can be difficult,” Jacobs says. “I think it’s for the suppliers for the stores or other retailers to say to their suppliers, we would like you to be doing this.”

There is still a lot of work left to do in making packaging more accessible to consumers suffering from arthritis and similar conditions affecting their dexterity. Regulators, packaging suppliers and retailers all need to step up their efforts to improve accessibility, but considering that the population - and with it the consumer base - is ageing, it makes good business sense.

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