Can You Recycle Packing Peanuts? Materials and Eco-Friendly Options

Hand Holding Packing Peanuts
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Whether packing peanuts can be recycled or not depends largely on what they are made of and the type of recycling facilities that exist in your area. Packing peanuts are actually color-coded—they come in green, pink, and white—and each color indicates what they can be used for, what they’re made of, and whether or not they’re recyclable or biodegradable. 

Historically, these airy bits of packing material were made of expanded polystyrene (EPS). However, in the last few years, more sustainable materials have been developed, which is good for the environment but confusing for consumers.

Learn how and where to recycle packing peanuts and explore simple and creative ways to reuse this material around the house. 

What Are Packing Peanuts Made Of?


EPS is mostly air; it is essentially polystyrene (a plastic product) that has had air forced into it, causing it to expand. While the material it is made of is recyclable, foam peanuts cannot be “unexpanded.” The only way to recycle expanded polystyrene is to compact it and grind it for use in other applications. 

Polystyrene is listed as a #6 plastic by the Environmental Protection Agency, but packing peanuts present several challenges when it comes to recycling. The biggest problem is that they take up a large amount of space in relation to their weight, making it challenging for waste companies to haul, store, and sort.

How to Identify Packing Peanut Material


Packing peanuts come in different colors, which often indicate what they are made of or how they have been treated. In addition, the color indicates how they should be disposed of. Keep in mind, however, that the colors of packing peanuts are not a perfect means of identification.

Pink and White

pink packing peanuts
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White and pink packing peanuts are made of raw materials. Pink packing peanuts are very similar to white ones, but they are sprayed with an anti-static agent which makes them useful for shipping electronics.

Both of these types of packing peanuts can technically be recycled if a facility accepts them. Check with your local curbside service or drop-off recycling facilities to see if they accept them.

Green

Loose fillers in the parcel box for shipping protection
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Green packing peanuts are usually made from recycled materials, making them more eco-friendly than the white and pink ones.

Biodegradable Packing Peanuts

Biodegradable packing peanuts are often off-white or beige. They are made from some type of dissolvable material (such as corn starch or sorghum) and cannot be recycled. 

To figure out whether your packing peanuts are biodegradable, place one in water for a few hours. If it dissolves, it is made from plant-based materials. 

The biggest advantage of biodegradable packing peanuts is their sustainability. They are effective at cushioning fragile items while being non-toxic and readily available. Plant-based packing peanuts are also safe for shipping electronics since they do not carry an electronic charge. 

Unfortunately, biodegradable packing peanuts tend to cost a bit more than expanded polystyrene and weigh more as well, which increases shipping costs slightly. 

Eco-Friendly Biodegradable Packing Peanuts
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How to Recycle Packing Peanuts

While challenging at times, there are a few ways to recycle used packing peanuts.

Curbside Recycling

Technically, white and pink packing peanuts are recyclable, even though most curbside recycling programs do not accept them. Contact your local recycling facility to check if packing peanuts are accepted through your normal curbside service.

Takeback Programs  

There are often local takeback programs that will accept used packing peanuts. Some United Parcel Service (UPS) locations, for example, accept "clean foam packaging peanuts of all sizes, shapes, and colors for reuse." Other local shipping companies in your area may also accept used packing peanuts, so be sure to call around.

Mail-in Recycling

Check out the Expanded Polystyrene Industry Alliance for information on mail-in programs that will accept used packing peanuts.

According to the U.S. EPS Recycling Report, over 136 million pounds of EPS were recycled in 2019, including over 46 million pounds of post-consumer packaging.

Local Small Businesses or Neighborhood Groups

If you know any small business owners or have friends who have online stores, offer your used packing peanuts to them. You can also offer them up on your local buy-nothing group.

From neighborhood Facebook pages to your local playgroup, ask if anyone is moving soon and let them know you have packing peanuts to cushion their fragile items in transit.

Ways to Reuse Packing Peanuts

Easter Box
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Even if you can’t find a way to recycle packing peanuts or send them back to be reused for shipping purposes, there are many ways to upcycle them. Here are a few ways to reuse and repurpose old non-biodegradable packing peanuts:

  • Make your own bean bag chair: Since packing peanuts are so light and fluffy, they make great cushioning. 
  • Filler for potted plants: Large pots require a lot of soil and are incredibly heavy to move. Add packing peanuts to the bottom of a large pot to take up space. Then, in a separate smaller pot or container, add soil and your plant.
  • As a cooler insulator: Since EPS is an excellent insulator, add it to your cooler along with ice to keep it cold for longer periods of time. Just make sure your food and beverages are packaged safely.
  • Use them in your pedicure: Don’t have a fancy toe separator to prevent smudging during your pedicure? Grab a few packing peanuts instead!
  • Make your toolbox safer: If you have pointy tools like razor blades, screwdrivers, or sharp scissors, reaching into your toolbox may be dangerous. Slide a packing peanut onto the sharp tip to prevent injuries. 
  • Protect painted walls from damage: Hanging frames may scuff the paint on your walls. To protect painted walls from damage, glue a packing peanut on the back of each corner of the frame. 
  • Use them in crafts: From stamp painting to Christmas tree garlands, there are dozens of ways to use packing peanuts in crafts. And if you can’t think of any, offer your packing peanuts to a local elementary or preschool for their next craft time. 

Instead of Packing Peanuts Use:

  • Crumpled up newspaper
  • Strips of cardboard that have been tightly rolled
  • Upcycled corrugated cardboard 
  • Shredded office paper
  • Used wrapping paper
  • Fabric scraps or torn strips of old clothes
  • Dryer lint
View Article Sources
  1. "Take a Look at EPS Recycling." EPS Industry Alliance, 2019.