can you recycle packing peanuts
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Can You Recycle Packing Peanuts?

We’ve all bought some items online in shipping boxes filled with packing peanuts. This packing material is used to protect items being shipped from damage. You may have some piled up in your home and wonder if you can recycle packing peanuts. Well, the answer largely depends on the type of material used to make them. 

What’s more? Let’s learn how to recycle and reuse packing peanuts as well as greener alternatives.

Related Read: Are garbage bags recyclable? Can you recycle glass? Explore our articles about waste recycling to find out what common items you can recycle.

What materials are packing peanuts made of? 

packing peanuts in a box
Photos by Ian Munroe on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original)

Packing peanuts are made of two types of materials: expanded polystyrene (EPS) or biodegradable ingredients like corn starch. 

Expanded polystyrene is essentially a plastic product with pumped air that causes it to expand. Manufacturers use raw polystyrene (or styrofoam) to make foam plates and cups, packing peanuts, and other foam packaging materials.

Even if polystyrene is recyclable, it still comes with some challenges. Polystyrene doesn’t break down well at the recycling center, and products like food containers may have food waste on them, contaminating the whole recycling process. 

What’s more, expanded polystyrene used in packing peanuts takes up lots of space in recycling centers and is blown away by the wind because of its lightweight. This makes it challenging to get packing peanuts recycled. 

Identifying packing peanuts 

There are many types of packing peanuts that come in different colors. Aside from informing us what type of material was used, these colors also tell us how to dispose of them.  

  • Pink and white packing peanuts: Pink and white packing peanuts are the most common colors. They come from mostly non-recyclable raw materials. Manufacturers coat the pink packing peanuts with an anti-static coating that makes them not stick together. The good news is you can recycle these packing peanuts. However, you want to check with local curbside recycling programs or drop-off recycling facilities. 
  • Green packing peanuts: Green packing peanuts are typically made from recycled materials, making them more eco-friendly than pink and white.  
  • Biodegradable packing peanuts: Biodegradable packing peanuts are made of plant-based materials like corn starch and come in an off-white or beige color. These biodegradable packing peanuts are non-toxic and effective for cushioning fragile items like electronics. However, they cost more and weigh more than non-biodegradable packing peanuts. 

Are packing peanuts bad for the environment? 

As we already mentioned, EPS is the raw material manufacturers use to make our conventional packing peanuts. This raw material is strong, durable, and great for packaging various items. However, while they are great for packaging, they are not great for the environment. 

But what’s so bad about packing peanuts? Well, firstly, non-biodegradable packing peanuts take a long time to break down. They are lightweight and can easily find their way around the environment, accumulating along waterways and contributing to marine debris. Sadly, these packing peanuts also contain chemicals that can cause pollution and contribute to climate change.

Air pollution is also another concern that comes with packing peanuts.

How to recycle packing peanuts 

Here are a few ways you can recycle packing peanuts: 

Curbside recycling 

Typically, you can recycle packing peanuts that come in white and pink. These types of packing peanuts come in most recyclable polystyrene. However, the challenge is most curbside programs do not accept them. But you can check with your local recycling facility to see if they accept packing peanuts. 

Mail-in recycling 

If you don’t find a curbside recycling program in your area, the good news is that some mail-in programs may accept used packing peanuts. 

For example, you can check with the Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance to find mail-in programs that may accept your used packing peanuts. 

Take Back programs 

You may also find local take-back programs that accept used packing peanuts. You can check with some shipping companies and local service providers like UPS and FedEx to find out if they take packing peanuts. Some of these companies may offer to pick up your packing peanuts right from your home at no cost. 

Are there biodegradable packing peanuts? 

green packing peanuts
Photos by Dave Matos on Flickr licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (Cropped from original)

Yes, there are biodegradable packing peanuts. These packing peanuts come in plant-based materials like corn starch, sorghum, grains, and sometimes human food.

You can’t recycle these packing peanuts, but they biodegrade easily. You can easily toss them in your sink and watch them dissolve once they come in contact with water. 

Biodegradable packing peanuts are heavier and may attract rodents. But, biodegradable peanuts are safer for the environment. 

How to dispose of your packing peanuts

Surprisingly, you can quickly dispose of biodegradable packing peanuts in your kitchen sink. By simply tossing them in water, they will dissolve without a trace. 

The green packing peanuts are biodegradable and do not get sticky, unlike their white and pink counterparts. You can easily test them to find out if they are biodegradable by tossing them in a bowl of warm water. If they don’t dissolve, there are EPS-packing peanuts. 

If you have EPS packing peanuts, check with the local recycling center to find out if they accept them. You can also contact shipping companies like FedEx to find out if they can pick up your packing peanuts. You can also donate it to an arts and crafts center in your local community. 

Ways to reuse packing peanuts 

If you’ve tried to recycle your packing peanuts and can’t seem to, you can repurpose them in many ways. Here are some ways you can reuse packing peanuts: 

  • Reuse for shipping: Packing peanuts are excellent packaging materials. You can use it to package a gift or check for small businesses that need packing peanuts for packaging their products. 
  • Stuff items at home: Packing peanuts are fluffy and lightweight and can make a great stuffing material for things like pillows, toys, and bags. 
  • Use for potted plants: If you have some potted plants, you know that they require lots of soil. You can use your packing peanuts as a filler for the bottom of your plant pot and then add soil on top of it. 
  • Use for arts and crafts: You can check with arts and crafts centers to find out if they need them. You can also use it at home for creative craft ideas for you and your kids. 
  • Use for decoration: You can use your packing peanuts as decorative pieces. For example, you can add glitter and a string to decorate your Christmas tree. 

Related Read: Importance of 4Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Alternatives to EPS packing peanuts

old newspaper
Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

You can avoid packing peanuts altogether and go for sustainable alternatives. You can try one of these alternative packing materials below: 

  • Cardboard or recycled paper
  • Shredded paper 
  • Old newspapers
  • Fabric scraps 
  • Mushroom packaging
  • Wrapping paper 

Wrapping up 

While these peanuts are excellent packing materials that we have used for many years, they are difficult to recycle and can harm the environment and human health.

Beyond recycling and reusing, it's also critical to emphasize the importance of waste reduction. By asking sellers to minimize or substitute their use of packing peanuts in their shipments, we can directly impact the demand for these materials and promote environmentally friendly practices.

Also, educating others about the environmental consequences of packing peanuts and sharing ways to recycle or reuse them can significantly influence them. From schools to offices, we can spread awareness and foster a culture of responsible consumption and waste management.

If you have a pile of polystyrene packing peanuts at home, you can recycle or reuse them following the above recommendations. In the long run, every action we take towards more sustainable practices counts, not just for us but for future generations and the health of our planet.

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photos by Petr Kratochvil on Public Domain Pictures
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