Are Childproof Container Caps Worth the Price?

We have 6 still functioning soap dispensers in a cupboard and we refill the three that we use.  Although the refill packages sold in supermarkets around here cost about the same as soap with a new dispenser. And they are only twice as big as a dispenser anyway, so not many people buy them. Thus, supermarkets do not have them in stock sometimes. They do have the dispensers though, all the time, full shelves. Luckily my mother found an online shop that sells big 5 l canisters of liquid soap which lasts us a year and we can reduce the amount of plastic we use by an infinitesimal amount. And since I cut myself at work rather badly yesterday, all I can do is think and I went down a rabbit hole of thought that I shall elaborate on now in this post a bit.

On each supermarket shelf around here, one can see several different spray bottles of window cleaners of multiple shapes and sizes, although with just a few discrete volumes. The same goes for soap dispensers, disinfectants, antifungals, toilet cleaners, etc. Each brand that sells 0,5 l or 1 l of some liquid has its own unique bottle shape, its own unique plastic wrap around it, and its own unique cap. And sometimes those caps are made in a way that allegedly prevents children from accidentally opening them but in reality, give more grief to people with a hand injury like me right now or to elderly people with arthritis like my mother than to any child old enough to reach an upper shelf in the bathroom.

Those safety lids are a special pet peeve of mine. I was cleaning the shower the other day and I wanted to rinse the bottle of disinfectant before tossing it. And I found again what I have forgotten – the spray bottle is deliberately made so that the lid cannot be unscrewed. Why? I do not know. I do not know anyone who knows anyone whose child imbibed a disinfectant or window cleaner from a spray bottle. I have read about some such cases in the news with regard to bottled dish cleaners, but those are still sold without the safety lids and none of the kids was severely hurt! However, I did read several cases about adults imbibing some seriously dangerous liquids (like lye) with sometimes lethal consequences because they themselves put them in soda bottles and did not label them properly. In my personal opinion, these “safety” lids have one purpose only – to make the item single-use. They may save one life in a million or so, but they definitively increase plastic pollution by an order of magnitude, and the lives that cost cannot be easily quantified.

Do we really need 10 different shapes of a bottle for a disinfectant that gets poured into the toilet? Is that what the famous “customer choice”  is about? In my opinion, the choice should be about what is in the bottle and how well it works.

And this got me thinking, could all this be avoided? In my opinion yes. But it has to be done from the top down by a legislative action that forces the corporations to behave. Because as the hard-to-get refill packages for soap dispensers demonstrate, personal action does not work.

So if I were the Supreme Leader of the EU, here is my proposal for how it could be done:

  1. Standardise spray bottles and soap dispensers etc into just 1 container for each used volume. Make the bottles refillable by law. Material is either stainless steel for the more corrosive liquids, aluminum for the less corrosive, and glass for the stationary dispensers. All these three materials are easy to recycle and there is an extensive infrastructure to do so already. Labeling must be printed on paper, not plastic, and can be the only brand-specific thing. The purchasing costs of the dispensers would be bigger, but they would last a lot longer, orders of magnitude longer.
  2. Standardise refill containers in just a few volumes too and make it compulsory to have them on sale in greater amounts than the dispensers/sprays bottles etc. The material should be either PP or PET, undyed, and without fillers. Standardized containers could be, with some tweaking of infrastructure, re-used several times before they would need to be scrapped. And both PP and PET can be recycled several times before they degrade even if the reuse were implausible or impractical. And 1 5 l container uses less plastic than 5 1 l bottles. Labeling again printed on paper and the only brand-specific thing.
  3. If the caps need to be chid-proof and/or single-use for some products, they still can. Even if made from non-recyclable plastic, at this point it would be negligible when compared to what we have now. But I am not convinced this is more useful than, say, an education campaign to teach parents to keep dangerous things out of their kid’s reach.

Apart from the obvious way this would reduce the amount of plastic pollution, there are other ways this would help to reduce the carbon emission of the whole industry. Standardized containers would mean less demand for steel molds. One machine producing 10 identical refill bottles at a time consumes less energy and has a smaller footprint (both area and CO2)  than 10 machines making 10 distinct, brand-specific bottles in 10 smaller molds. Transport costs would also be lower than now because those bottles are even now, the liquid manufacturers often do not make those themselves, they buy them from specialists. And standardized bottles could mean better optimization of distribution delivery routes among different manufacturers.

Oh, and the same thing could be done for soda, and liquor bottles.

Would it work? I think it would. After all, most of this is already done for beer and soda cans and beer bottles so why not for Hi Ginny?


  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    I do not know anyone who knows anyone whose child imbibed a disinfectant

    Well, we did have a rather childish President who suggested it . . .

    My Dad, about 25 years ago, joked that, when he got older (he is now 85), he was going to starve to death because he wouldn’t be able to get into child-proof packaging. Now I find myself having trouble with child-proof packaging. In the oddest damn places.

    We got, for our granddaughters, a nice big bottle of baby shampoo, with detangler. And it had a pump top for the bottle. Which is one which you need to twist right, while pushing down, while rubbing your tummy, while patting your head . . . And we broke it.

    If you have a restaurant supply store, and know someone in the restaurant business who does any buying, the restaurant stores sell big bottles of soap, detergent, etc. with no child-proof caps.

  2. mordred says

    Not sure what age I was when she started, but my mother usually handed “child proof” containers to open as kiddy me was much better at it than her.

    I recently bought some bathroom cleaner in tablet form, simply put it into an empty spray bottle or a glass bottle sold by the same company and add tap water. Haven’t tried it yet, but that’s an interesting idea. Of course something like that existing does not mean enough people are going to use it, and I’m pretty sure the normal cleaner sold by Aldi is still cheaper, plastic waste and all.

  3. Jazzlet says

    I’d vote for you Charly (if we were still in the EU that is)!

    I agree with absolutely everything you have said in this post. We have found that some of the spray containers that won’t unscrew will “snap” off intact if you are careful, but it’s one extra impediment to reuse. I buy as much as I can in bulk and decant into appropriate containers, it is so much cheaper as well as being better of the environment. I also use one product for most wet cleaning, the exception being the toilet, you don’t actually *need* most of the different floor/work surface/sink/cooker cleaners, one bottle of concentrated scentless soap can be diluted according to task and level of grime. Added to which some of the “specialist” cleaners like Flash -- for floors -- work by removing the top layer of your floor, so sure it gets clean, but you are slowly but surely destroying your floor covering and paying more for the priviledge than if you just used a simple soap.

    I hope your hand wound heals up quickly!

  4. billseymour says

    Since there are no children in my household and, subjectively, it doesn’t seem like I’ve reached my second childhood yet, I’ve asked my pharmacy to supply my pills in bottles without the senior-proof caps.

  5. Matthew Currie says

    Around here at least (US) many if not most pharmaceuticals come with caps that are not child-proof when reinstalled upside-down.
    But I agree that some other things are really annoying. I often just pry the caps apart. Listerine mouthwash caps have tabs that require you to squeeze. You can cut those tabs off. A mini wire cutter is a handy thing to keep around.

  6. lumipuna says

    I never thought about this, but now I feel privileged that the cheap dish soap I use as an all-purpose detergent comes in thin plastic bottles that are indeed refillable. There’s no real refill for them, but I like diluting the soap with water, because that way it’s easier to pour, lasts longer and eventually you can get the bottle clean enough for plastic recycling.

    I also like that the soap in question is unscented and uncolored, and the bottle has a squirt top, which I find more practical than a pump top. Liquid soaps marketed for handwashing (as opposed to dishwashing) usually have a pump top.

  7. says

    If the caps need to be chid-proof and/or single-use for some products, they still can. Even if made from non-recyclable plastic, at this point it would be negligible when compared to what we have now. But I am not convinced this is more useful than, say, an education campaign to teach parents to keep dangerous things out of their kid’s reach.

    I don’t think the problem is that parents don’t know, the problem is that life is messy. You’re doing something with a dangerous liquid, then something happens, you leave the bottle where you were and then it stays there. But I think that for most potentially dangerous liquids, the invention of bitrex was the best thing that could happen. But for some thzings, it is too dangerous to risk children even tasting a small amount.
    I’m with oyu on the “231843521 uniqe plastic bottles” and the fact that you cannot open window cleaners an reuse the spray bottle.

  8. flex says

    A couple comments… (worth about $0.02),

    Having spent much of my career as a product engineer (in automotive but I imagine a lot of the lessons are broadly applicable), I can give you a possible reason why some bottles have non-removable tops. They are cheaper to manufacture. The difference between a blow-molded screw-top and a blow-molded press-top on the bottle side is negligible. But I believe the mating, female side, is injection molded rather than blow molded. Injection molding a screw thread can be quite difficult, and most of the screw-lids appear to be made of a couple parts. Having the lids be press-fit appears to require at least one less part on the lid side, and the mold will only need a couple sliders making it easier and cheaper to build and maintain.

    Further, for assembly, to automate a screw-action during assembly not only do both pieces need to be held in place, but the top needs to be held in a fixture which can spin. For a press-fit, that spinning mechanism is not necessary, reducing the complexity of the line, which saves money on the assembly equipment and on maintenance of that equipment. It could also speed up the line. If the line was producing 100 bottles a minute and can now make 110, that’s real money.

    In automotive assembly lines we really do count the minutes for each stage. If we can save 30 seconds in an operation by re-designing a module we consider it because it might be financially worthwhile.

    As for child-proof bottles, I think everyone recognizes that they only deter the youngest infants. By the time a child is walking they can open a “child-proof” bottle. In fact, if my only memory is a guide, by that time they see such devices as puzzles which must be solved. So, if everyone acknowledges that they don’t keep children from opening them, why are they even made?

    I think we have to go back to money on this one as well. I suspect that child-proof caps are what the suppliers of potentially harmful substances can point to as providing a “reasonable” level of protection from children getting into their products. Reasonable from a regulatory and legal standpoint. That is, if the suppliers of house-hold cleansers or heart medication provided no mechanism on their containers to deter children from opening them, they would be considered negligent in a court of law. However, by putting some form of locking mechanism on the containers, they have met a requirement for a “reasonable” level of control over opening. The entire debacle is an attempt from the manufacturers to meet regulatory requirements and avoid costly lawsuits, regardless of how effective the solution is.

    In short, a problem was identified: children, people with various learning disabilities, and even pets (or other animals), were on occasion exposing themselves or others to noxious, harmful, and deadly substances which are also regularly used in homes. The solution: limit the liability of manufacturers of these substances by implementing a primitive locking mechanism for the container. While the solution does reduce the incidences which do occur, it does not eliminate them. Further, these solutions can also add significant difficulty to those people who wish (or need) to access these substances for normal use.

    Somehow, the solution doesn’t really seem to address the root problem. I suspect there is a miss-match in incentives. Not that I have any better ideas, the solution we have does reduce the frequency of the problem, but I suspect we could do better.

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