The packing peanuts (you may know them as “popcorn”) used to protect shipped materials from damage are made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which most of us mistakenly confuse with the Dow Chemical Company trademarked name Styrofoam. Unfortunately, you can’t “un-expand” foam plastic, and that limits the recycling market, so reuse or donation are the best options for this material.
Packing Peanut Recycling Preparation
- Separate packing peanuts from everything else in the shipping box, including the cardboard, any paper instructions, plastic bags and other EPS packaging. These other materials have recycling/reuse markets, but you’re not going to find a recycler that will accept them all together.
- Many drop-off sites will only accept white packing peanuts, so you’ll want to separate out any other colors.
- Bag up all your packing peanuts in one container, such as a clear plastic bag.
- If you have room in your house/apartment, store the packing peanuts for reuse when shipping gifts for the holidays or birthdays. There’s no reason to pay for new packing peanuts if you have an abundance of used ones.
- For those looking to dispose of packing peanuts, contact local shipping stores to see if they accept them for reuse. You could also contact schools and churches to see if they can be donated for reuse in art projects.
- While there are EPS recyclers in Earth911’s Recycling Search that accept peanuts, there are much fewer of these than shipping stores, so recycling should be seen as a secondary option. You’ll want to call and confirm if there’s a minimum quantity accepted for recycling.
- If you must throw your packing peanuts in the garbage, keep them contained in one bag so they don’t escape from the garbage truck during transportation and become litter.
Why Reuse Packing Peanuts?
- Packing peanuts (and other EPS) are among the most common sources of marine debris, where they can be mistaken as food by birds and fish.
- Packing peanuts don’t biodegrade, meaning it will take hundreds of years for them to decompose in a landfill.
- Recycled EPS can be used to make everything from new EPS to picture frames and rulers.
Frequent Packing Peanuts Recycling Questions
Can I recycle packing peanuts in my curbside recycling program?
Most cities do not accept any forms of expanded polystyrene (EPS) through curbside programs, but you’ll want to check locally. Even if your local program says it accepts #6 plastic (technically, EPS is a form of #6 plastic), most times it will exclude any foam plastics.
What is the difference between expanded polystyrene and Styrofoam?
Styrofoam is a Dow Chemical Company branded product used for coffee cups, coolers, and packaging materials. All Styrofoam is considered EPS, but not all EPS is Styrofoam. The biggest difference is that Styrofoam is rough and splits when folded, whereas other EPS packaging (such as packing peanuts) is more soft and can bend without breaking.
Can I recycle packing peanuts for money?
No. Your best bet is to donate packing peanuts to a shipping store for reuse; you could ask if the store will provide you a discount in exchange. While it is less expensive to make new EPS from recycled content than virgin material, companies are unlikely to pay for your used material unless you can provide it by the truckload.
Can I purchase packing peanuts made from recycled EPS?
Yes, you can find them online — the color of peanuts indicates the recycled content. Green peanuts have up to 70 percent recycled content, whereas white and pink peanuts are mostly virgin material.
Can I purchase packing peanuts that aren’t made from EPS?
Yes, and many companies are already using these products. Dell ships products using packaging made from mushrooms, and U-Haul uses biodegradable peanuts made from corn and potato starch. However, there is no recycling market for either of these materials, meaning unless you compost them, they’ll eventually end up in a landfill. Modern landfills are designed to minimize decomposition, so even biodegradable materials will take a very long time to decompose.
How are packing peanuts recycled?
First of all, EPS is not technically “recycled.” Recycling involves converting a product back into raw materials, and since you can’t un-expand a plastic, you can’t convert EPS into raw polystyrene. However, you can turn old packing peanuts into new products.
The first step for a recycler is to compact all EPS foam together into blocks. Next, it is shredded into pellets. These pellets are then used to create new products, either other forms of EPS like packing peanuts/insulation or products like rulers and picture frames.
Are there any states that require packing peanut recycling?
No, although states like California are considering legislation that would ban polystyrene entirely. It’s unclear how that would affect companies like Amazon that ship materials nationwide.
- How to Create a Sustainable Shipping Department: If your business frequently ships products, here are some ways to green your process.
- Recycling Mystery: Expanded Polystyrene: An overview of recycling options for all EPS plastic.
- Styrofoam to Power Biodiesel Engines: Using packing peanuts as an additive in fuel is one of many disposal options.
- Innovative Recycling System Crushes Styrofoam Overload: Learn about a portable system that densifies EPS to make it easier for processors to recycle.