What are Packed Peanuts?

Corn starch, which can be used to make packing peanuts.

Packing peanuts are small, loosely S-shaped pieces of polystyrene that are included in the packaging of delicate items to prevent damage. Some versions look more like real peanuts than others: other common shapes include tubes and 8s. They are used to fill in gaps in shipping boxes so that objects do not move or slide during transport and get damaged. In addition to being made from polystyrene, they are sometimes also made from biodegradable materials, in response to consumer concerns about polystyrene being sent to landfills, where it can take up a lot of space and take centuries to biodegrade.

Packing peanuts are used to protect shipped items.

A variety of materials known as loose fill have been used to package items for shipping for centuries. Hay and wood chips were common until the mid-20th century, when advances in plastics made polystyrene a viable alternative to traditional packaging materials. When packaging with organic materials, companies ran the risk of pest infestation in their packaging, and things like newspapers didn’t always protect the items being shipped, and they tended to compact during transport.

Polystyrene – often associated with insulation – can be used to make packing peanuts.

Packaged peanuts are lightweight but strong enough not to break during the shipping process. Incredibly cheap to make, they quickly flooded the packaging market and companies around the world began using them to ship everything from books to fruit. They seemed like the ideal solution to the issue of transporting delicate items over long distances, until concerns about landfill space began to arise. Like other plastics, polystyrene takes a long time to degrade.

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Packing peanuts are now generally made from recycled materials.

Several companies started making these cushioning materials from recycled plastic, which was a positive first step. Peanut exchanges also began to emerge: companies that received items packaged in peanuts could bring them, bagged, to an exchange where companies that needed packaging materials could collect and recycle them in their own packaging. In addition, corn starch packaging materials were developed. Cornstarch peanuts are completely biodegradable, as anyone who has ever put them in hot water knows. They are as efficient as plastic and can be used and reused before they run out.

Companies continue to use polystyrene peanuts to protect their products during shipping, although most try to use them in an environmentally conscious way. Consumers who receive products packaged with peanuts can often find a local drop-off point for them or can reuse them when sending packages to others. Most shipping companies are happy to accept recycled peanuts, and internet listings can be used to help consumers who are having a hard time getting rid of their packaging materials.

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