Packing Peanuts: Recycle or Compost?

picture of white Styrofoam packing peanuts

During the gift giving season, think recycling or composting, when the subject turns to packing peanuts.

Packing peanuts are the small, light, foamy materials added to shipping boxes for product protection. Technically they go by the name Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and are a combination of air and the #6 plastic called polystyrene. Their success as a packaging material means recipients face disposal dilemmas. What does one do with them?

Because they consist of around ninety-nine percent air, packing peanut bulkiness creates storage problems for those choosing the storage option.

Disposing of packing peanuts generally translates into landfill waste. Peanut manufacturers recognized this dilemma and now offer two additional disposal options, recycling or composting.

Recycling is the option of choice for peanuts made from polystyrene, a plastics polymer often called styrofoam. Fortunately the problem had an answer waiting. The growth of the shipping industry associated with the growth in online shopping made it economically feasible to organize recycling efforts.

The The EPS Industry Alliance Council, created in 2012, maintains an on line data base consisting of over 1,100 places in the United States that accept packing peanuts for recycling.

Concerns about the environmental costs associated with the oil-based, non-degradable characteristics of polystyrene peanuts led to the development of biodegradable starch based peanuts. They keep products safe during shipping and easily dissolved in water without creating chemical residues.

Biodegradable peanuts fit comfortably in most compost piles, making for their easy, earth-friendly, disposal. (Please note, peanuts that do not dissolve in water, should not be placed on the compost pile.)

Both the biodegradable and non-biodegradable packing peanuts provide environmental benefits and costs. The environmental production and shipping costs associated with starched based peanuts, make for difficult comparisons between the two products.

For example, it might be difficult to argue that the environmental costs associated with polystyrene peanuts, that are recycled and used on ten separate occasions, are greater than the environmental costs associated with the production and shipping of starch based peanuts that are disposed of after one use.

Consumer choice will eventually answer the question. Since biodegradable packing peanuts cost at least twice as much as their polystyrene counterparts, consumers will choose between biodegradable peanuts that add to up-front shipping costs and non-biodegradable peanuts that add a back-end transportation cost of a trip to the recycling center.

Until then, when the subject turns to packing peanuts, think recycle or compost.