Foam packing peanuts are a lightweight packing material which is used to fill the empty space in boxes and containers, to cushion the contents and protect them from damage during shipping.
They’re a welcome addition in freight packaging for the additional protection they provide, but the problem is what to do with this packing material afterwards. How we recycle them or dispose of them depends on what they’re made of.
How to Identify Biodegradable Foam Packing Peanuts
All foam packing peanuts are made of either one of two materials:
- Styrofoam, also known as expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is made of polystyrene (#6 plastic) that is filled with tiny bubbles of air. This is a type of plastic, so it’s a man-made synthetic material derived from petroleum, and is non-degradable.
- Biodegradable foam, made from natural, nontoxic materials, such as corn, wheat, and potato starch. This material can be broken down by bacteria, water, or other living things, can be composted, and therefore won’t remain in landfills for thousands of years like polystyrene.
There’s a simple test to figure out what type of packing peanuts you have. Just place a foam packing peanut in water, or under a running tap. If it dissolves, it’s the natural variety, which is made of starch. If it remains unchanged, then it’s made of polystyrene.
How to Dispose of Biodegradable Foam Packing Peanuts
Biodegradable foam packing peanuts are starch-based and easily dissolve in water, so they can quickly be disposed of down the sink under running water.
A more sustainable way to dispose of biodegradable foam packing peanuts is to recycle them by adding them into the compost bin.
Compost ingredients are classified as nitrogen-rich ‘greens’ and carbon-rich ‘browns’. Starch packing peanuts contain a lot of carbon, and therefore belong to the ‘browns’ category.
When composting, add one bucket of nitrogen-rich ‘green’ material to every two buckets of carbon-rich ‘brown’. materials to create the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen which the composting bacteria require, of 25 to 30 parts carbon to one-part nitrogen by weight.
For more information about composting and getting the right mix of materials, see the article – How to Make Compost in 18 Days Using the Berkeley Hot Composting Method.
With the synthetic polystyrene (styrofoam) packing peanuts, disposing of them usually involves dumping them into landfill waste, unless there are facilities available which accept and recycle polystyrene foam waste.
Are Biodegradable Foam Packing Peanuts Edible?
Starch-based biodegradable foam packing peanuts are non-toxic, and are safe if they’re accidentally consumed by humans (children) or pets.
The sugars in biodegradable foam packing peanuts are removed during production so they don’t attract bugs or rodents. What’s left apparently tastes like a flavourless stale corn puff, so please don’t eat them!
It’s important to note that biodegradable foam packing peanuts are not produced in food-safe conditions, so it’s not a good idea to eat them, or feed them to your dog.
My advice is to put them into the compost instead, and eat the yummy plants that grow from your garden that the compost goes into. Nature can recycle materials to make rather indelible things very edible!