The World Before Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
If packing peanuts remind you of your childhood, it’s probably because their use has gone somewhat out of vogue. Lots of major online retailers and shipping companies have made the switch from the humble packing peanut to other means of padding and protecting sensitive or delicate items during transit.
Despite not being as omnipresent in consumer products, packing peanuts are still commonly used in industrial settings, and by some consumer electronics and lifestyle manufacturers. One of the major reasons for the switch: environmental concerns.
In their heyday, packing peanuts were still not the world’s most popular packing option, with the majority of people finding the tiny pieces of foam to be a nuisance.
Besides being staticky, easy to lose, and somewhat difficult to clean up, foam packing peanuts are also bad for the environment, making them difficult to ethically dispose of.
For all of these reasons, packing manufacturers have largely backed off of the use of foam peanuts, but that doesn’t mean they are gone for good.
So, what should you do next time you rip open a package and it is full of packing peanuts? Keep reading to find out.
What’s the Deal with Packing Peanuts?
Traditional foam packing peanuts are made from polystyrene, a material commonly used to make foams and certain hard plastic products, also referred to as Styrofoam.
Polystyrene packing peanuts interlock within a package, filling in the gaps to provide additional compression, padding, and support during transit without adding significant weight to the package.
Packing peanuts are also very versatile, and can easily be used for packages of every size without extensive alterations to the packing materials.
Despite their utility, foam packing peanuts have become a thorn in the side of consumers and environmentalists around the world, helping to initiate a decline in their popularity.
Polystyrene foam is non-biodegradable, and like other resins, it can take hundreds of years to begin to degrade in a landfill environment. Though some polystyrene peanuts can be recycled/reused, many are never properly disposed of or simply littered/dumped.
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Like other lightweight litter (i.e. straws, dental floss, balloon pieces, etc.), packing peanuts are easily blown into oceans, lakes, and waterways where marine animals like seabirds, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals commonly mistake the floating bits for food.
When consumed, polystyrene packing peanuts can wreak havoc on the digestive systems of these animals, often creating significant health problems.
About Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
Despite being bad for the environment, packing peanuts are actually a pretty good packaging solution, and can do wonders for protecting sensitive and delicate items like electronics, ornaments, glassware, and so on.
As an answer to protests over the environmental impact of the petroleum-based foam packing peanut, manufacturers in the ‘90s began experimenting with starch-based packing peanut alternatives, thereby creating the biodegradable packing peanut!
What They’re Made Of
Biodegradable packing peanuts are made from naturally derived starches like wheat and cornstarch. Entirely plant-based, biodegradable packing peanuts will dissolve in water, making it impossible for them to wind up polluting oceans, lakes, rivers, or waterways.
That said, should a wild critter get ahold of one of these starchy-puffs, they won’t experience any significant health risks should they choose to chow down.
Biodegradable Packing Peanuts Disposal
Unlike foam packing peanuts, which can take centuries to decompose, biodegradable packing peanuts can be dissolved in just minutes when exposed to moisture and warmth.
Once you have gotten all the use you need out of biodegradable packing peanuts, they can be dissolved in your home and washed away, or can even be added to a compost pile if you live in a warmer climate.
Since bio-peanuts are made from natural, plant-based starches, you won’t have to worry about them destroying pipes or polluting the environment once they have been dissolved and washed away.
This said, it is important to remember that the terms ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ do not have the same meaning.
Though biodegradable packing peanuts will eventually degrade without a trace, and won’t leave behind toxic residue, they cannot be relied on to break down in a composting environment without additional assistance.
Are These Packing Peanuts Biodegradable?
Now that you are a little more well versed on the technicalities of packing peanuts you may be wondering: how am I even supposed to know if the packing peanuts I have are biodegradable or not?
This is a good question, since most companies won’t include a note letting you know whether their packing is eco-friendly or not. Though packing peanuts have become increasingly rare, knowing how to distinguish foam from starch peanuts can help you be responsible when you do come across that novel box of packing peanuts.
First, use your eyes: if the peanuts are white or pink, it is more likely that they are made from polystyrene. Biodegradable packing peanuts are often green to help distinguish them from their foam counterparts.
Next, try building static electricity: foam packing peanuts will gather static and stick to your clothes. Biodegradable packing peanuts won’t get staticky or stick to clothes, electronics, other packaging materials, etc.
Finally, do the water test: drop a peanut in a glass of warm water and see how it reacts. If it dissolves, you have a biodegradable packing peanut on your hands. If it stays intact after several hours, you’ve got foam.
How Biodegradable Packing Peanuts are Helping the Environment
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand why foam packing peanuts pose a threat to the environment, so it will come as no surprise to learn that biodegradable packing peanuts are the better and more environmentally friendly option.
While foam packing peanuts may pollute the planet for centuries after their disposal, biodegradable packing peanuts typically degrade within a few hours or days, leaving behind no toxic residue, chemicals, or microplastics.
For marine environments, reducing the use of petroleum-derived products is of the utmost importance.
With more than 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into our oceans each year, plastic pollution has become one of the largest and most significant threats to our environment. Along with more stringent regulations regarding the disposal of industrial/manufacturing waste, the creation of plastic alternatives has helped to slow the production of plastics.
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Like other eco-friendly alternatives (i.e. reusable bags, compostable plastics, stainless steel straws, etc.), biodegradable packing peanuts provide virtually the same experience as their foam counterparts.
Besides their end-of-life being far more environmentally friendly than foam varieties, biodegradable packing peanuts can also be manufactured with the use of fewer resources, and produce fewer emissions throughout the process.
Do you want to go plastic-free? Visit Pela to see our full line of compostable plastic phone cases, and be sure to check out the blog to learn more about living a greener lifestyle.