Can you recycle packing peanuts? Its complicated!

  • Date: June 11, 2022

With an increasing number of customers shopping for their items online, the world of zero waste has turned its attention to packaging. Standard packing peanuts (those made from polystyrene) are not widely recyclable – but in terms of re-usability they are ideal. The packaging peanut landscape is, thankfully, slowly become more eco-friendly in terms of disposal. Here we will take a look at some of the issues surrounding polystyrene packing peanuts and the other alternatives available.

Firstly, what are packing peanuts made of?

When determining the best way to dispose of an item – be it recycling, composting or the trash – knowing what it is made from can give some clues.

Standard packing peanuts are made from polystyrene – a foam-like plastic polymer derived from petroleum. Thankfully, natural and much more eco-friendly packing peanuts are also now widely used to pack everything from fragile antiques to electronics. These are, generally, made from wheat and corn starches.

Packing peanuts can be color-coded to help you distinguish the foam from the biodegradable ones (foam = pink/white, biodegradable = green), but this is not always the case. If you are unsure which type of packing peanuts you have, the test couldn’t be more simple. Just pop one in water – if it dissolves, it is the biodegradable/natural type. The polystyrene packing peanuts will remain unaltered in water.  

Are polystyrene packing peanuts recyclable?

Polystyrene is not recyclable in most areas.  As a material, it is recyclable – but the infrastructure is just not there. It is an expensive process and demand is not deemed sufficiently high to make it worth it. Instead, we are encouraged to cut/break them (and any other polystyrene packaging) into smaller pieces and pop them in the trash. From here the likely destination is the landfill pile – where they will, most likely, outlive you.

But it isn’t all bad news, all the polystyrene that is used worldwide is not destined for landfill. As mentioned, it can be recycled it just needs to be done at more specialist recycling centers. Businesses who use a lot of the stuff, such as large retailers and manufacturers, tend to opt for recycling. It is estimated that in the U.K., nearly 55% of all polystyrene (including packing peanuts) disposed of by businesses is recycled. It could be better, of course, but this is still a sizable amount diverted from landfill.

How can you re-use packing peanuts?

If you aren’t a big business, you should still aim to divert polystyrene packing peanuts from landfill for as long as possible. Most Google searches on ways to re-use polystyrene items will throw up options such as making your own superglue or using it as insulation. Here we like to keep it as simple as possible – because let’s face it, it is much more likely to happen!

The best way to re-use standard polystyrene packing peanuts is for its intended, original purpose – packaging. There is a reason these are used as packaging to begin with; they are great at cushioning fragile items for postage. They can be used many, many times for this purpose. Unlike some other forms of polystyrene, such as the boards that come with electrical items, they will keep their shape and not break apart really easily.  

If you are not sending anything fragile in the post any time soon, why not get creative with them? Over on Pinterest you will find countless, creative ways to use your old polystyrene packing peanuts for crafting, from making holiday decorations to printmaking. These types of activities are also a great way to start the conversation with your kids about living in a planet-friendly way. Fun but educational, the ideal combination!

What about biodegradable packing peanuts – can they be recycled?

When it comes to recycling, rules and regulations vary between areas. But typically, biodegradable packing peanuts should not be added to the curbside recycling bin.

As with the standard packing peanuts re-use is key. Similarly, we advise that you use them if you need to protect any fragile items on the move. Getting creative with biodegradable packing peanuts is a bit more tricky – as mentioned previously, if they come into contact with moisture they will start to disintegrate quite quickly!

Luckily, there are other options when they have come to the end of their usable life. Generally, biodegradable packing peanuts can be added to the compost pile. Compost ingredients fall into two main categories – nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and carbon-rich ‘browns’. The cornstarch packing peanuts contain carbon, so fall into the ‘browns’ category. In a healthy, well-monitored pile they should breakdown extremely quickly. In fact, they are one of the most easy items out there to compost.

If you do not have a home compost facility, don’t worry! Their ability to dissolve in water makes them extremely easy to dispose of.  Since they are plant-based they can be dissolved and safely rinsed down the sink. Although, we would advise that you ensure they are fully broken down beforehand to avoid any gloop getting stuck in the pipes – and also don’t do a full box in one go. You should always err on the side of caution. 

The bottom line

Unless you are a big business, recycling packing peanuts will be difficult – it is not a standard service offered by recycling centers. Re-use them as much as possible, whether that be crafting or packaging. Biodegradable packing peanuts are usually compostable but if you don’t have the facility to compost them, simply dissolve them in water and pour it down the drain. Since they are plant-based they will not cause harm to the environment.