Digging Deeper:
Giving Packing Peanuts a Second Chance

The Question
Sometimes when I ship items I need to use packing peanuts.  Once I went to the recycling center and took some from the bin of peanuts that had been recycled, although I felt funny.  I would think that an easy way to reduce waste of packing peanuts would be to advertise that anyone can do that.  Is there any way to promote that?

The Explanation
Packing peanuts are made from a petroleum-based product called polystyrene, also known by the brand name Styrofoam.  Historically, expanded polystyrene has had a poor environmental track record. It is associated with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), solid waste problems, and lack of landfill biodegradability.

Life-Cycle Analysis
Actually, polystyrene packing peanuts (also known as loose fill) aren’t as detrimental to the environment as they were once thought to be.  CFCs are no longer used in their production, so they are now non-toxic.  They’re also not taking up much space: polystyrene peanuts occupy a mere quarter of one percent of landfills.  In addition, today’s peanuts contain at least 25 percent recycled content, and more than 30 percent of loose fill is reused.  True, polystyrene peanuts are a petroleum product, but they are made from by-products and represent only a fraction of one percent of the oil and natural gas consumed in the United States.

The Cost
An alternative to traditional polystyrene packing peanuts is a newer, biodegradable peanut made from cornstarch.  These “eco-peanuts” cost about the same as the traditional version: around $10 for three cubic feet.

Although cornstarch peanuts are meant to decompose, they regularly accumulate in landfills where conditions are not optimal for degradation.  If you use these peanuts, be sure to place them in a compost area or on an open lawn. That way, they will have the opportunity to break down. 

What about reusing peanuts already in circulation?  Check with your local recycling center.  Today there are essentially two types of recycling facilities.  The most common, recycling depots, are mere drop-offs for your used materials.  Most of these centers adhere to firm “no scavenging” policies in order to protect their liability, control litter, and prevent dumpster-diving.  If contacted in advance, these facilities may allow members of the public to pick up materials for school projects, artwork, or boxes for moving, but they’re not the right place to browse for regular household goods like shipping materials. 
The second, less common type of recycling facility is more like a swap yard, where you are free to drop off unwanted materials and remove needed items.  These are good places to drop off or pick up used packing peanuts. The Peanut Hotline, available at 800-828-2214, can help you discard leftover packing materials by locating a business that will reuse your unwanted peanuts. Want to skip the peanuts altogether? Try padding your shipping boxes with used newspapers or other paper products. Manufacturing new paper packaging materials consumes more energy and creates more wastewater and atmospheric pollution than making polystyrene peanuts, so stick to crumpling up recyclables that are already lying around the house.

Navigating the Rules
As community members, we can encourage our cities to switch from drop-off facilities to those that allow the public to remove materials.  We can also encourage individuals to recycle by slipping notes inside shipping boxes reminding the recipient to reuse the packing materials.

For More Information
The Plastic Loose Fill Council, an industry association, provides information about polystyrene peanuts at www.LooseFillPackaging.com.

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