Those of you who want to save your couriers backache, your shop assistants' time, your customers bruised fingers and bad tempers, think handle says Item Products managing director Gerry Taylor

When my daughter has been on a spending spree, I’m usually the first to know about it. She’ll call me on her way home from her favourite department store in a state of agitation.

Usually, she has to struggle on a crowded bus with her bulky shopping – say a new bathroom mirror, candelabra-style ceiling light or over-sized CD rack in their bulky boxes with only a cat’s cradle of string for a handle. “It’s so stupid!” she yells down the phone at me. “Please go and tell them they don’t need to do it this way!”

She has a point. There really is no excuse for sales assistants having to become masters in the art of string-origami just so they can provide an uncomfortable and unstable handle for their customers’ unwieldy purchases. The packaging industry can do better than that.

Like much else about packaging, plastics carrying handles in corrugated board boxes are taken for granted, almost invisible to the end user. They’re only ever noticed when they’re not there but, behind the simplicity, if a plastics handle is going to do its job properly, there lies considerable expertise.

The use of plastics handles in packaging probably dates back to the 50s. Before that, the time-honoured methods of carrying heavy or awkward packages included rope, wood, metal and, of course, string. The advances in polymer technology made during the Second World War opened up tremendous possibilities for plastics development.

When my own company turned its attention to handles in the late 80s, there were about half a dozen ‘generic’ plastics handles on the market, made by several companies and all out of patent protection. It really was a case of one-size-fits-all.

None of them was usable as far as British Home Stores was concerned. In 1985 they invited six design consultancies, including my own, to find a better in-store solution than string, which would reduce the valuable time their staff spent tying up boxes and give their customers a better result. The idea that eventually became Twistlock came to me when I was fixing a wheel back on to my lawnmower.

I realised the same technique could be adapted to a carrying handle, and a packaging breakthrough was born. BHS went on to buy more than 4M Twistlock handles.

We recognised what the packaging industry had failed to see for more than 30 years – plastics handles need to be engineered to work for the specific job at hand. Small wonder that my own firm now has a product range of more than 200 plastics handles designed for everything from delicate glass to heavy-duty automotive parts.

I should point out that in-store fitting remains a rarity. It is the big packaging suppliers who select and fit our components for their industrial and retail clients.

Our early foray into handle design was followed up by our invention of the Integra handle. The revolutionary aspect of this handle was that its base-plate was integral and moulded into the unit, making it economic, strong, and quick and easy to assemble.

It has taken a while for the industry to appreciate fully the benefits of handles. It is very tempting to think of them as a marginal bit of added value that can easily be dispensed when the economic climate or the competition gets tough.

That is nearly always a false economy. Damage to high-value goods in transit [tableware, clothing, computers] can wipe out profit margins. Fitting handles to boxes dramatically reduces this problem.

Health and safety is an increasingly important reason for fitting properly designed handles, especially for industrial use. Indeed, safety is sometimes paramount, as in the case of the handles we supply to transport radioactive isotopes, which have to be guaranteed failsafe and capable of supporting more than 75kg.

Handles can come into their own where mechanical lifting devices are used, such as in the production and storage of dry ice, where the handle must also be able to tolerate sub-zero temperatures without cracking.

One of our most unusual challenges was to supply a handle for coffin bearing. It had to be strong and also capable of cremation without releasing toxic fumes. Plastics, therefore, was not an option so we devised a fibreboard and cotton-weave solution.

For most handles polypropylene is usually specified because of a winning combination of assets – low-cost, easy to mould and recyclable.

These days most plastics handles are recyclable or reusable. It regrettable that there is still relatively little will in the packaging industry to reuse materials and we look forward to this changing over time.

One thing is for sure. The needs of the industry are constantly changing and developing, and so the engineering and product development work that goes into handle design will continue to evolve in parallel.