Packing peanuts made of polystyrene, a plastic polymer, have long been used as packing material. The packing peanuts are small, lightweight and foamy, and are added to fill spaces in boxes to protect items when they are shipped. The polystyrene packing materials are not biodegradable, however, and wind up in landfills. As a result, manufacturers are now offering disposal options and biodegradable packing peanuts.
Plastic packing peanuts were trademarked as Styrofoam by the Dow Chemical Company in 1965. The packing peanuts are made of petroleum-based, non-biodegradable materials that are difficult to recycle. The packing peanuts are roughly the size of a peanut and are shaped to interlock when compressed and then free flow when they are not.
Packing peanuts come in three different colors to help distinguish their makeup and specific purpose. The most common are white packing peanuts; the color indicates that they are at made up of at least 70 percent non-recycled material. The green packing peanuts are the most environmentally friendly and are made up of at least 70 percent recycled content. The color pink indicates that the packing peanuts have been treated with a chemical to reduce static cling, which is useful when shipping electronics, according to the Void Fill Packaging website.
Styrofoam packing peanuts contain toxic chemicals. As a result, they can cause a variety of health concerns. At certain levels of exposure, these toxic chemicals can have an effect on the nervous system, resulting in fatigue, weakness, nausea, depression and loss of concentration, according to the Planet Green website.
Because they are not biodegradable, many pack-and-ship stores will accept used Styrofoam packing peanuts as long as they are clean. Recycling has helped stem the tide of packing peanuts winding up as landfill. Planet Green reports that the reuse of consumer-returned packing peanuts saved about 22 million pounds of virgin polystyrene. More than 1,500 places in the United States accept Styrofoam packing peanuts for recycling.
Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
Newer packing peanut products are earth friendly. The "green" packaging material is starch-based and biodegradable in a compost setting. The packing peanuts will also easily dissolve in water without leaving residue. The newer biodegradable material eliminates the damaging effects of polystyrene peanuts on the environment. The starch-based packing peanuts have the added benefit of also being reusable, just like the polystyrene types.