If you have just received a package filled with packing peanuts, you are probably wondering if they are biodegradable or not, but how can you tell?
For decades, packing peanuts have been a standard product used by delivery services to protect the contents of fragile shipping items. However, there has been a lot of criticism of packing peanuts from environmentalists given that non-biodegradable options can be quite destructive.
The easiest and most reliable way to tell if packing peanuts are biodegradable is to run some water on them. As the packing peanuts start to absorb water, biodegradable ones will break down very quickly. Whereas standard packing peanuts will retain their structure.
In the modern age, we are finding that environmental standards and practices are becoming commonplace in our society. Sustainability is a trend happening all over the world and people are looking for alternative ways of living that are not as harmful to the environment. This has resulted in society weeding out a lot of destructive practices and habits that were once overlooked entirely - with traditional packing peanuts being very destructive. These days, the packing peanuts (or packing popcorn) that we all grew up with are being canceled out of society. However, packages still need to be kept safe, which is why excellent biodegradable alternatives can be used that cause virtually no harm to the environment. With that being said, it is not always clear if these new-age packing peanuts are biodegradable. To help you understand this further, we are going to take a closer look at how to test the biodegradability of packing peanuts.
After extensively researching packing peanuts, I have been able to determine the best way to find out if they are biodegradable. My research has shown me that although biodegradable packing peanuts are becoming much more common, there are still a lot of non-biodegradable ones being used to this day.
What Are Packing Peanuts Made Of?
Traditional packing peanuts are made out of polystyrene. This is a foamy and cushiony material that is typically used to secure the contents of a package. Most of us know this material as styrofoam, which is primarily used for packaging, containers, and insulation.
Is Styrofoam Biodegradable?
Styrofoam is not biodegradable. This is a material that conservationists are urging society to use very sparingly given how destructive it can be to the environment. It is estimated that styrofoam can take as long as 500 years to biodegrade, which is as long as most common plastics.
Why Styrofoam Doesn’t Biodegrade
Styrofoam is made out of polystyrene. This is petroleum plastic that can take centuries to fully decompose. Although roughly 95% of what makes up packing peanuts is air, the additional material is polystyrene (or styrofoam), which is not biodegradable.
Ecological Impact of Styrofoam Packing Peanuts?
Packing peanuts are incredibly bad for the environment. This is a non-biodegradable product that will take 500 years to break down. One of the biggest reasons why packing peanuts are so harmful is due to the fact that they are so commonly used.
Packages are stuffed with this material to cushion items, which results in massive amounts of packing peanuts being used across the entire globe. This is especially problematic given how small packing peanuts are. Unlike other plastic products that can be handled and processed efficiently as waste, packing peanuts easily get separated - resulting in countless pieces of styrofoam entering the environment.
They eventually turn into microplastics which are linked to a number of ecological issues - especially for marine species. Marine animals are not used to microplastics existing in their ecosystem, which is why they commonly mistake them for food and end up swallowing them. Microplastics from sources such as packing peanuts have been linked to the deaths of millions of marine animals around the globe.
In addition, packing peanuts contain toxins, which they release into the environment. This not only affects ecosystems but also poses a threat to human health as well.
Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
A fantastic alternative to traditional packing peanuts are biodegradable options. There is a global shift towards sustainability and a lot of this is being focused on the materials that we utilized for single-use products. Packing peanuts are an environmental focus and we are finding that there are fantastic alternatives to traditional options that end up causing virtually no ecological harm.
This new alternative is now being implemented across many industries around the globe and they are just as effective as traditional packing peanuts when it comes to protecting shipping items.
What are Biodegradable Packing Peanuts Made Of?
Biodegradable packing peanuts are generally made from wheat and cornstarch. These are completely natural sources that can be harvested from the Earth and have been proven to decompose much faster in the environment - with most breaking down in minutes.
Are Biodegradable Packing Peanuts Common?
Although we are moving towards an era of environmentalism in our society, we are still heavily relying on traditional packing peanuts in many industries. This is particularly common in developing nations that simply do not have the money to implement sustainable alternatives like biodegradable options.
Many corporations and industries are adopting biodegradable packing peanuts but they have yet to become the standard. What we are seeing much more of these days is packing peanuts that have been made with recycled materials.
How to Tell Styrofoam from Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
The best way to identify if your packing peanuts are biodegradable or made from styrofoam is to pour some water on them. Styrofoam packing peanuts will simply absorb water and it will not affect the structure of the material.
However, biodegradable packing peanuts will start to break down when you pour water on them. Given that these eco-friendly packing peanuts are made from wheat and cornstarch, they will actually decompose after several minutes of moisture contact.
Aside from performing an actual test with water, you will find that many biodegradable packing peanuts are colored green to make it easy for consumers to identify the material. With that being said, this can also be implemented with packing peanuts made from recycled materials, which is why a water test is still the most reliable method.
How to Dispose of Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
If you have received your package and have a whole mess of packing peanuts to deal with, you may be wondering what to do with them. The great thing about biodegradable options is that they can be disposed of very easily - completely guilt-free.
Since they are made from natural materials that will break down quickly in the environment without releasing any harmful chemicals, the best way to dispose of your packing peanuts is to compost them. Your waste collector can process these packing peanuts the same as they would your mowed grass trimmings. Alternatively, if you have an outdoor compost bin in your garden, you can throw them in there and they will start breaking down naturally.
In addition, a common way that many consumers get rid of their eco-friendly packing peanuts is to dissolve them right at home. By placing the packing peanuts into a bucket of water, you will find that they dissolve very quickly. You can then pour the liquid contents directly into your drain with no harm being caused to the environment.
With that being said, another thing that you can do with your biodegradable packing peanuts is to reuse them. If you are planning on shipping any items in the future, you can always stuff your package with leftover biodegradable packing peanuts to perform the same function.
Can Styrofoam Packing Peanuts be Recycled?
Unfortunately, styrofoam packing peanuts cannot be recycled, which is another reason why these products are so destructive to the environment. Styrofoam in general is a material that cannot be recycled and this especially applies to packing peanuts.
Although your trash collection service will not be able to process them for formal recycling, one of the best alternatives to throwing them away in the trash would be to reuse them again. Much like with biodegradable options, you can reuse this product continuously, which mitigates the demand for packing peanuts in the future.
How to Dispose of Packing Peanuts
If you have got traditional styrofoam packing peanuts on your hands, there is really no eco-friendly way to get rid of them. These packing peanuts need to be disposed of in the trash - the same as all of your normal waste.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker