Packing peanut haters unite: There are better options

packing peanuts not the best shipping optionWhat a waste, I think to myself every time I open a package and and a geyser of foam packing peanuts erupts. A waste of money, a waste of my time spent cleaning up the detritus, and a waste of space spent saving it to use again. Can't, I wonder, anyone find a better solution?

And the problem goes beyond my annoyance. Landfills are crammed with junk like the eternal packing peanut, although it has been banned in many landfills. Wisconsin, for example, banned the product from landfills in 1995. In 1999, the EPA estimated that around 1 part in 20 of landfill contents was polystyrene, which includes said peanuts.

What's so bad about foam peanuts, aside from the annoyance factor? The expanded polystyrene doesn't degrade quickly. It's bulky to store and bulky to ship and awkward to handle, all of which adds expense that I end up paying. And it's not the cheapest packing material option, either.

As a unit of comparison, let's consider the common hi-cube railroad box car, with an interior volume of around 7,480 cubic feet. To fill a boxcar with packing peanuts from the catalog vendor Uline at catalog prices would cost around $10,612.

There is a more environmentally friendly peanut, which solves the landfill problem but not the annoyance. Peanuts made of cornstarch break down under water and can be composted. However, this comes at a cost. The same quantity of cornstarch peanuts from Uline will set you back $11,370 at catalog prices.

What about that most amusing of packing choices, the air bubble sheets? (FYI: Bubble Wrap is a registered trademark.) While fun to play with (pop some virtual Bubble Wrap online), filling a boxcar with it would run you $13,826.

And keep in mind, what you're buying is air; a peanut is 99.6% air. That's some pricey air.

Another alternative is molded pulp (think cardboard egg cartons.) These are an alternative, however, only until you do some calculator work; to fill our boxcar with this product would run around $52,000.

A cheaper alternative is the air-filled plastic pillow. These are made as they are needed by the packer, overcoming the burden of storing huge volumes of material. And, according Rachel Hadley, a spokeswoman for Sealed Air Corp. via e-mail, the cost per cubic foot of this packing option is only 70 cents, meaning you could fill that boxcar with this kind of air for only $5,306.

This is a good start. Another notion that would also make sense to me is to ship me products in boxes that fit the products, rather than sending me a thumb drive in a box big enough to serve as a basketball court. Got that, Amazon?

If you are unfortunate enough to get stuck with bags of packing peanuts, there is help available. The Plastic Loose Fill Council (really) has a hot line (800-828-2214) that will hook you up with the nearest business that accepts peanuts for reuse/recycling.

You'll still have to deal with rounding up the uncooperative foam and lugging it there, but at least you won't be contributing to our newest U.S. mountain range, the Trashies.
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