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Am I the only one who gets the shivers when I open a box only to discover it’s full of polystyrene packing peanuts? If there’s one commercial product I cannot abide it is packing peanuts. And there’re a lot of good reasons for my mania.

Packing peanuts are those typically white, petroleum-based cushioning products patented by Dow Chemical Company in the mid-1960s. They’re used in boxes or other conveyances to protect the object being shipped. Dow Chemical calls their polystyrene product Styrofoam, a word that’s gone into everyday currency for any product that’s remotely similar, like the material in a coffee cup. Scary as it may seem, there’re now different kinds of packing peanuts.

I, for one, despise them all. Nothing is more challenging—or frustrating—than trying to unpack something covered with Styrofoam peanuts. First, they fall apart and small pieces scatter everywhere. Second, these small pieces as well as whole peanuts stick to everything: the product, clothes, hair, furniture, carpet, you name it, they stick, and the more you try to avoid them the more they spread. They get into cracks and crevices of the new product, stick to your couch, and turn up later between your toes. Packing peanuts are, in a word, diabolical.

Styrofoam packing peanuts are 95% air. Thus, they easily blow in the air and float on water, hence the nickname “White Pollution.” They’re reusable and in loose fill fashion, allow air to flow through packaging yet interlock under pressure.

Sound good? But: polystyrene peanuts are not biodegradable (unless you count gradual breakup over 500 years), are not water soluble, give off toxins when they do finally fall apart, and are highly static.

In the United States we throw away about 2 million tons of this stuff per year, most of it ending up accounting for 25-30% of the waste in landfills. It can kill birds or fish mistaking it for food.

Efforts have been made to find a biodegradable alternative to polystyrene packing peanuts. Starch and other food-based peanuts are now used by some companies. Usually they’re green to signify their recyclable, biodegradable qualities. They’re heavier, water soluble, non-toxic, and non-static, but more costly. Nordstrom, at least, is there, having switched all packing materials to biodegradable soy-based peanuts.

A new paper-based peanut called PaperNuts has also been developed. PaperNuts are not made from oil or food materials, aren’t static, toxic, or heavy. They’re made from recycled paper, and are recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable.

Styrofoam packing peanuts periodically steal into our home inside an opaque box, like Greeks hiding in the Trojan horse entering Troy. I consider them the enemy and while the Greeks defeated the Trojans I try to get the upper hand on packing peanuts.

Here’s the battle plan: Don’t touch the peanuts with your hands, use an old towel to wipe peanuts from the product, thus allowing inevitable static to stick peanuts to the towel. Clean the product of peanuts while it’s yet in the box. Do your level best not to let the Greeks, I mean the peanuts, into your house. Keep them inside the horse, er box. Get the box of peanuts outside your house as soon as possible, as in immediately. If you don’t, pieces of will travel and you’ll find bits of static poly for weeks to come.

I say, “Down with polystyrene packing peanuts. Up with paper peanuts.” And if this won’t work, drive to the nearest retail establishment and by your product, specifying no packing peanuts allowed.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010

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