Where can I find non-polluting alternatives to those foam

Where can I find non-polluting alternatives to those foam “packaging peanuts” used for shipping fragile merchandise?

—Brian Smith, Lynwood, WA

Those little white polystyrene-foam packaging peanuts are nearly ubiquitous in our pack-and-ship culture, but they are no good for the environment, let alone human health. The basic building block of polystyrene is the non-recyclable chemical compound styrene. Chronic exposure to styrene is associated with central nervous system damage as well as skin, eye and respiratory irritation, depression, fatigue and compromised kidney function. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International Agency for Research on Cancer both consider styrene a possible human carcinogen.

Consumers who occasionally deal with foam packing peanuts shouldn’t worry too much over such intermittent exposure, but should be alarmed at the health effects on the workers making the material and on the quality of the soil and groundwater near landfills where most of it ends up. Some locales—including Portland, Oregon and Orange County, California—have even banned the use of polystyrene foam in homes and businesses.

So what’s a conscientious shipper to do? Luckily alternatives abound. For starters, old newspapers, which are inherently recyclable and biodegradable, make for great padding when scrunched up and used liberally inside boxes. Another smart choice is PaperNuts, an alternative to foam peanuts made from recyclable, biodegradable post-consumer corrugated cartons and post-industrial paper processing production waste.

And starch-based peanuts, such as those available from Starch Tech’s Clean Green Packing, protect and pad fragile items during shipping but can be dissolved in water and washed right down the kitchen sink. Or, like their chemical counterparts they can be re-used in the next outgoing package. Some other manufacturers of biodegradable packing materials include Minnesota’s NatureWorks, Italy’s Novamont Spa and the German industrial behemoth BASF.

But sometimes it’s not up to you what kind of padding is protecting the products you mail-ordered and had sent to your home or business. If the box contains polystyrene foam peanuts, you can call the company that sent it and ask that they switch to a more environmentally friendly alternative. With more and more companies looking for ways to “go green” these days, they might just take heed.

Regardless, the best way to prevent such peanuts from contaminating the environment is to reuse them in an outgoing package, and include a note asking the recipient to do the same. If you have no use for them, many businesses that do shipping will take them if they are in good condition. And most managers at UPS, Mailboxes Etc. and other pack-and-ship shops will gladly save a little money and accept a donation. And if no local businesses will take your foam peanuts, those staffing the phones at the Plastic Loose Fill Council’s Peanut Hotline (see contact info below) will be happy to help find one that will.

CONTACTS: PaperNuts; Starch Tech Inc.; Plastic Loose Fill Council Peanut Hotline, (800) 828-2214