The Mighty I, to be exact. After Zora’s comment on our last post I skeptically dropped one of these nuts in a glass of water and watched it dissolve in a matter of seconds. What an unexpected turn of events! What are these biodegradable packing peanuts made of and how did I not know about them?? This discovery reduces last weeks plastic footprint by about 50%!
Expanded polystyrene packing peanuts were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965. Prior to their debut natural materials like newspaper, hay, and wood shavings were used to protect packages during transport. Unfortunately, newspaper had a tendency to compress and goods would shift and arrive damaged. Hay and wood chips could get infested with pests. Lightweight and strong, polystyrene peanuts not only protected your precious cargo from damage and infestation, but they also cut down on shipping weight and cost.
Although they seemed like the perfect solution for shipping, concerns about their environmental impact began to arise. Notoriously difficult to recycle, these morsels could be reused to ship with your family’s christmas gifts, but more often than not they ended up in a landfill, where they would inevitably stay for generations! centuries! millenia! No conceivable time span can explain the life of these plastics. They simply do NOT break down! Another concern was the space they would take up in landfills. My 14 x 14 box unveiled these peanuts like a clown car. When not compressed they spread themselves out with reckless abandon (aided by their notorious static charge). Light and clingy, they are easily airborne or shirtborne into the environment, where they can break down into dangerous ingestible foamy morsels that can wreak havoc on marine life.
In the wake of these environmental concerns some innovative companies responded by using partially recycled material to make their peanuts. California went as far as requiring recycled content packing peanuts statewide in 2012. This is a positive first step, but once made these recycled peanuts will still be around for centuries (or longer!) and have the same environmental consequences as a pure peanut. In the 1990s the first biodegradable packing peanuts hit the market. Usually made from corn starch these peanuts are non toxic, dissolve in water, don’t get static cling, and are stripped of their nutrients to avoid infestation. They are sturdy enough to still be reused, composted, or you can dispose of them down the drain! (Or popped in your mouth as a shocking party trick)
We will still be keeping these peanuts, but we look at them much differently now. This was a great lesson in producer responsibility. Sustainable packaging is becoming increasingly popular in todays “green” market. I am much more inclined to buy from Container and Packing Supply now that I know they take responsibility for their impact on the environment!
It is also important for consumers to speak up! When you order a product online you can contact the company and ask them if they will avoid using polystyrene packing peanuts for your shipment. Tell them about more eco-friendly alternatives. Companies want their buyers to be happy, so we need to make sure they know this is important to us! See, it’s only week 2 and we’ve already learned something :O)
To close this post, here is what you can do with any polystyrene peanuts you may have inherited:
1. Create a closed loop with you family! Hang on to them and use them to ship gifts for birthdays and holidays.
2. Find them a happy home by listing them on the Freecycle Network. Someone in your area is bound to be moving or shipping.
3. Get crafty! Use them to stuff a Halloween costume or a pillow for your pet. Make a floating keychain. Glue magnets to the back and put them on your refrigerator. There are tons of peanut craft ideas you can find online!
4. Put them in your cooler! No seriously, next time you go for a picnic (and you should go for a picnics ALL the time!) put your ice in a reused ziplock bag with packing peanuts. The ice will stay colder and last longer!
5. Visit the Plastic Loose Fill Council’s website to find a drop off site near you. With over 1500 drop-off sites in the US (19 in Ma) to take back used packing peanuts there are, of course, NONE near me. Interestingly, when I did the same search on Earth911 it said my local recycling center accepts them. This just gets curiouser and curiouser.