The majority of packing peanuts are made of non-recycled, non-biodegradable EPS, arguably one of the worst types of plastics for the environment. Luckily, recycling packaging peanuts is relatively easy, so you can deal with these bits of plastic responsibly!
Why you should recycle packaging peanuts?
Packaging peanuts are commonly used to protect items during transport and storage, so you’ll probably find them sent to you with the items you buy online. You may also come across them, or even choose to use them, when you move house and your valuables need to be protected during transit.
Worse still, the trash we send to landfill often doesn’t stay there, but instead makes its way to our waterways, eventually ending up in the ocean.
EPS is particularly prone to do this, as these lightweight pieces easily float on waterways and travel large distances. A study by the University of Barcelona found that packing peanuts and other forms of polystyrene are the most common type of microplastics found in Mediterranean coastal waters.
This is particularly worrying because fish, birds, and other marine life mistake the packing peanuts for food and eat it. The EPS then lodges in the animal’s stomach, causing a slow, painful death.
Land animals, especially dogs, are also prone to eating packing peanuts with potentially fatal results. Even if the peanut doesn’t lodge in the animal’s digestive system, the petroleum-based plastic it’s made from can leach toxins into their blood.
Can packaging peanuts be recycled?
Unfortunately, recycling packaging peanuts is not easy. Packaging peanuts are made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), catagorized as plastic #6. This type of plastic is generally not accepted through curbside recycling programs because it is more difficult to recycle than other plastics.
This is essentially because expanded polystyrene cannot be un-expanded back into raw polystyrene. However, many recycling facilities do accept this material, which they use to make new EPS items.
Typically, the process looks like this:
- The facility compresses the EPS into large blocks.
- They then shred the blocks into small pellets.
- The pellets are used to make new EPS products such as packing peanuts.
There are a few different types of packing peanuts, and each kind is color coded so that you instantly know what type of material you’re dealing with.
Each kind of packing peanuts is treated differently when it comes to recycling:
- White – These are the most common type of packaging peanuts and are made of 70% raw, non-recycled material. They are not biodegradable and typically not accepted for curbside recycling.
- Pink – These are essentially the same as white packing peanuts, but also have an anti-static coating.
- Green – The eco-friendly(ish) alternative to other types, these packing peanuts are made of at least 70% recycled material.
- Off-white or beige – Rather than being made from EPS, these peanuts are made from a dissolvable material like cornstarch or sorghum. They cannot be recycled, but they are fully biodegradable and compostable.
Even though green packaging peanuts are marketed as the “eco-friendly” option, they’re still made of EPS, and so are very damaging to ecosystems if they end up in the natural environment. Furthermore, they may be made of up to 30% non-recycled EPS, which comes from non-renewable petroleum.
Therefore, it’s best to avoid this material altogether by either using biodegradable packing peanuts or an alternative form of packaging, and ask sellers to do the same when you buy something online.
How to recycle packaging peanuts
As stated, recycling packaging peanuts is not easy, nor is it simple. However, if you end up with some on your hands despite your best efforts, here’s how you can make the effort and hopefully recycle them.
Step-by-step guide to recycling packaging peanuts
Many courier companies also offer recycling programs, with drop-off locations for this material, which they’ll then reuse or recycle. Some will even pick up your packing peanuts for free!
Many EPS manufacturers also accept packing peanuts for recycling. If none of these options are available, you can take the material to a recycling facility.
To sum up, here’s how to recycle packaging peanuts:
- Contact courier and packing companies such as FedEx or UPS and see if they run a pick-up program or have drop-off locations for recycling packaging peanuts.
- See if there’s an EPS manufacturer in your area, and if they take the material for recycling.
- Use a finder tool like Earth911 to find a local recycling center that accepts EPS.
- Whichever option you choose for recycling packing peanuts, be sure to ask the program or facility if they only take clean peanuts, or if it’s ok to send in your packing material with tape, paper, and labels.
Other ways to responsibly dispose of packaging peanuts
Recycling packaging peanuts is a good option, but there are also other ways you can responsibly deal with them, to keep them from damaging the environment.
Reuse the packaging material
Packaging peanuts are virtually indestructible, which makes them an environmental nightmare. However, this characteristic also means that you can reuse them over and over again. Simply hold on to your packing peanuts and use them next time you need to send a package or when moving house.
You can also repurpose old packaging materials to fill bean bags or stuff pillows. Packing peanuts are also great for lining the bottom of planters and pot plants. You can also ask your friends, family members, and even community groups if they’d like to reuse your old packing peanuts.
Upcycle them into new projects
Packing peanuts make great art supplies, especially for kid-friendly projects. You can use them for everything from filling for soft toys or turn them into Christmas tree decorations – see this project for inspiration.
If you don’t have the urge to do any of these projects yourself, you could get in touch with local schools to see if they’d like to take your packing peanuts as craft supplies.
Compost or dispose of with green waste (biodegradable packaging peanuts only)
This option only works if you have biodegradable packing peanuts. So, the first thing you’ll need to do is check what kind of packaging peanuts you’re dealing with.
There’s an easy way to check this: all biodegradable peanuts are water-soluble, so simply grab a couple and put them in a glass of water. If they’re the biodegradable kind, they’ll start to dissolve within a few minutes.
If they pass this test, you can confidently put the packing peanuts out with your green waste or in your compost bin.
Avoid packing peanuts entirely
Arguably the most sustainable solution is to not using packaging peanuts at all. Packing peanuts are a convenient option, but they’re not the only solution, and given their impact on the environment it’s best to skip them entirely.
Sustainable alternatives to EPS packaging peanuts include paper, cardboard, and dissolvable cornstarch peanuts.
In some cases, simply using a custom box can eliminate the need for packing materials entirely.
As a consumer, you can look for vendors that advertise their use of such sustainable packing. Even if they don’t, it’s also worth asking if they’d consider using an eco-friendly option when sending you your shipment.
Online stores respond to consumer demand, so if enough people ask online stores and sellers to switch from non-biodegradable packing peanuts, they’ll probably make a change. This is one way you help to slash unsustainable packaging and reduce the amount of waste we produce as a society!
FAQs about recycling packaging peanuts
Let’s take a look at some of the common questions and doubts around packaging peanuts and how to deal with them responsibly.
Can I recycle packaging peanuts curbside?
No, in most areas you cannot recycle packaging peanuts curbside, though it’s worth checking with your local authority just in case. Otherwise, you can typically recycle this material through courier companies, EPS manufacturers, and recycling centers.
What’s the difference between styrofoam and packaging peanuts?
Packing peanuts are made of expanded polystyrene, essentially a type of styrofoam that has been injected with air. On the other hand, regular polystyrene, commonly referred to as styrofoam, is a harder, though still lightweight plastic material.
Neither of these materials are eco-friendly, though both can be recycled – take a look at our guide to recycling styrofoam for more.
Are packaging peanuts eco-friendly?
Most packaging peanuts are not eco-friendly. Even the “eco-friendly” green variety can be devastating for the environment if you dispose of them properly.
The only truly environmentally-friendly form of packing peanuts are the biodegradable kind that are made of organic materials like corn starch.
Where can I buy biodegradable packaging peanuts?
Recycling packaging peanuts becomes easier if you opt for the biodegradable kind. Plus, if you run a business where you ship products, you can boost your green credentials by using biodegradable packaging peanuts. You can source these through suppliers such as U-Haul, ULINE, and packagingprice.com, as well as on Amazon.
Make your packaging more sustainable
There are many advantages to online shopping, from convenience to affordability. Furthermore, you can find a range of eco-friendly products, from deodorant to dental floss that may not be available locally.
However, when your shipment turns up with a bunch of non-sustainable packaging including packing peanuts, this detracts rather from your eco efforts! Luckily, there are several ways to recycle, reuse, or upcycle these plastic pieces.
Better still, try to buy from shippers who use recyclable or biodegradable packaging and ask your favorite online stores to switch to these types of packing.
If you found this guide to recycling packaging peanuts helpful, go ahead and share it with your eco-conscious friends!