We are living in an ageing population, with around 10 million people in the UK living with arthritis; the condition causes pain and fatigue making it difficult to perform everyday tasks such as cooking, getting dressed, or going to the toilet.

According to the Research Institute for Disabled Consumer’s (RiDC) head of development, Caroline Jacobs, there has been an increase in awareness of arthritis since the 90’s and there has been some awareness made by charities like Arthritis Care now known as Versus Arthritis. RiDC is a disability-led organisation run by the people and working for the people for over 50 years.

The aim of the charity is to help businesses, the government, charities and organisations to improve their products and services for disabled and older consumers.

Accessible packaging vs packaging regulations

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

“When you test to the standard it’s very easy to see what should be different about the packaging.”

Over the time the testing was being done, an industry standard started to be developed called Packaging Accessible Design – Ease of Opening (BS ISO 17480:2018). This is an international standard for companies to test their packaging; packaging is tested twice with a minimum of 20 users aged 65-80 years to evaluate packaging in terms of how accessible it is and how easy it is to open.

“I do realise it’s very difficult because they have to weigh up in a way 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’ because you don’t need a huge amount of strength to open things, making it a decision for suppliers to weigh up whether ease of opening is important to them and their product.”

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Versus Arthritis, a charity supporting people with arthritis, says “opening things like glass jars with metal lids, small screw-top bottles and cartons, and containers with seal lads and small tabs can be very difficult for people with arthritis in their hands and wrists.”

Testing to the ‘ease of opening’ standard

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. Although there are regulations set up to tackle this issue, the packaging regulations are not always used. For example, while the ‘ease of opening’ standard is there for suppliers to use, it is a voluntary standard. Companies putting the effort in to make their packaging accessible for people with disabilities may use it but are under no obligation to do so.

The standard is not complicated to comply with and the results that come out of the testing show the strength that people need to open things and whether the labelling on the packaging 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 use the standard. In terms of the standard becoming compulsory for companies, she said it definitely should be in some way as one of the downsides of not being able to open your food is not being able to eat properly. If people are not able to use accessible packaging it results in them reaching for sharp instruments which could potentially harm them, all because they are trying to be independent and open something that most people can do on a daily basis.

The consequence of not having accessible packaging for people with arthritis, or any other disability that causes problems with their motor functions, is that the consequences are not great and some end up in hospital.

The future of accessible packaging

Even though there are competing factors with having ‘ease of opening’ as a regulation, the benefits could increase custom for companies. From the research done with Marks & Spencer and customer feedback, RiDC found that having packaging that is hard to open deters people from buying from that company in the future.

“It just makes good business sense to have products that people love and enjoy opening and using.”

“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.

She carries on to say that the research institute is going to do some work with Coveris, a packaging supplier. Coveris wasn’t able to choose, or chose not, to fund the work themselves, as they are waiting for one of the food companies they work with to agree with using the ‘ease of opening’ standard.

“It is a long chain that this regulation needs to go down, and getting permission from companies and suppliers can be difficult, but 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, people with arthritic hands that have less dexterity and strength is a very common disability in the ageing population. If every company tested its packaging against the standard it would give people with disabilities more opportunities and resources to use everyday packaging like everyone else.