Styrofoam is hard to recycle because it takes up so much space relative to its weight, so shipping it to a recycler does not provide much return on investment.

packing-peanut-recycling.jpg “Mayhem” from the Allstate Insurance commercials would feel right at home in this scene. A pickup truck drives down the road. In its bed, cardboard boxes on their way to the dump. But, the boxes are not closed securely, and suddenly they fly open and unleash a blizzard of white packing peanuts, which cover the windshield of another driver. The snowstorm is only temporary. Those packing peanuts are anything but. If they are made of Styrofoam, like most packing peanuts, they will litter the roadside for years. If they had made it to their original destination they would have sat in a landfill for millennia. Packing peanuts can be tricky to recycle, but they are very easy to reuse. There are also plenty of alternatives to packing peanuts for people shipping fragile gifts to loved ones or moving to a new house.

What are packing peanuts?

There are two types of polystyrene, which is labeled as #6 plastic. Regular polystyrene is used to make a number of consumer products including toys, jewel cases and dishware. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is what you get when you inject air into #6 plastic. Most packing peanuts are made of EPS, more commonly known by the brand name Styrofoam, which are up to 98% air. Besides packing peanuts, companies make drink coolers, coolers for shipping medical samples, and the ubiquitous drinking cup from EPS. Some use it to manufacture decorative moldings that are affixed on the sides of building. The products are lightweight and, once they are painted, look just as good as their wood counterparts. Since EPS is a plastic, it will not biodegrade. To deal with that problem of packing peanuts sitting on the side of the road (or in a landfill) forever, companies have started making packing peanuts out of food starch instead. Cornstarch is the most common raw material for “eco-friendly” packing peanuts, but some companies have used starch from sorghum, a grain used in molasses, animal food and occasionally human food. These starch packing peanuts look and function just like the EPS ones, but will biodegrade over time. However, they tend to be more expensive than Styrofoam peanuts.

Why are packing peanuts hard to recycle?

In theory, Styrofoam is easy to recycle. It is simply melted down and recast into new products. In practice it is not so simple. Styrofoam is hard to recycle because it takes up so much space relative to its weight. That means shipping it to a recycler does not provide much return on investment. There are a couple ways to bulk up Styrofoam and make it easier to ship. One is to use an extruder, which melts the Styrofoam and converts it into hard little pellets called ingots. The other is to use a machine that compresses the Styrofoam into blocks. Both methods get past the shipping problem by transforming a lightweight material to a more compact form. The byproducts of an extruder or compressor can be sent straight to manufacturers. However, even these handy machines may not be enough to save packing peanuts from the trashcan. Since so many packing peanuts are made with food starch, and it is nearly impossible to tell the Styrofoam ones from the starch ones, most recyclers will not put peanuts in their equipment for fear of causing damage.

Reuse packing peanuts — or eliminate them all together

Packing peanuts are easy to reuse. If someone sends you a box stuffed with them, put the box in storage and reuse the peanuts the next time you need to ship someone a gift. If you do not ship breakable items frequently, many companies will take packing peanuts and reuse them for you. For example, Mailboxes Etc. and UPS stores in some communities will take them off your hands at no charge. Check with your neighborhood branch, or with other local shipping companies, to see if they take peanuts. It is very rare to find a city that accepts packing peanuts at the curb, but some have Styrofoam recyclers that will take them at their site or pick them up from a transfer station. Again, they may not accept peanuts, since they cannot go through their processing equipment, but they may have another avenue for disposing of them in an environmentally friendly manner. Check our recycling search engine to see if your community is home to a Styrofoam recycler. The EPS Industrial Alliance offers a takeback program for clean EPS packing products like peanuts. You can mail items to them at no charge (other than the cost of shipping). EPS notes that peanuts must be free of tape, paper and other debris. Crumpled newspaper, shredded paper and rolled-up cardboard make good alternative packing materials. You can wrap items in something soft like a towel or sheet to protect them during mailing or moving. If you are shipping an item that is not delicate, try to put it in a small box to eliminate the need for lots of packing material.