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What are Packing Peanuts?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Packing peanuts are small, vaguely S-shaped polystyrene pieces that are included in the packaging of delicate items to prevent damage. Some versions resemble actual peanuts more than others: other common shapes include tubes and 8s. They are used to fill in the airy gaps in shipping boxes so that objects do not move or slide around during transit and get damaged. In addition to being made from polystyrene, they are also sometimes made from biodegradable materials, in response to consumer concerns about polystyrene being send to the landfill, where it can take up a great deal of space and take centuries to biodegrade.

A variety of materials known as loose fill have been used to pack items for shipping for centuries. Hay and wood shavings were common until the mid-20th century, when advances in plastics made polystyrene a viable alternative to traditional packaging materials. When packing with organic materials, companies had to risk vermin infestation of their packages, and things like newspaper did not always protect the items that were being shipped, as well as having a tendency to compress during shipping.

Packing peanuts are lightweight but strong enough that they do not break down during the shipping process. Incredibly cheap to make, they quickly flooded the packaging market, and companies all over the world began to use them for shipping everything from books to fruit. They seemed like the ideal solution to the issue of shipping delicate items long distance, until concerns about landfill space started to arise. Like other plastics, polystyrene takes an extremely long time to degrade.

Several companies started to manufacture these cushioning materials with recycled plastic, which was a positive first step. Peanut exchanges started to arise as well: companies that received items packed in peanuts could bring them, bagged, to an exchange where companies that needed packing materials could pick them up and recycle them in their own packages. In addition, the cornstarch packing materials were developed. Cornstarch peanuts are totally biodegradable, as anyone who has run one under warm water knows. They are as efficient as plastic and can be used and reused before they are exhausted.

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 things packaged with peanuts can usually find a local drop-off point for them, or can reuse them when sending packages on to others. Most shipping companies are happy to accept recycled peanuts, and listings on the Internet can be used to assist consumers who are having difficulty getting rid of their packaging materials.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon294841 — On Oct 03, 2012

My parents just recently moved out of their home, and because they are getting older, I had to go back home and help them. The boxes they were using to pack where the boxes we used when we were moving into the house 20 years ago. My wife and I just moved into our own home, and one of my college professors told me about Smooth Move Supplies.

I know this sounds dumb, but these boxes were awesome. They had built in handles, they didn't need any tape, and they were very sturdy. On top of it all, we got free shipping. Anyway, it helped us out a lot, and it helped my parents as well.

By anon287819 — On Aug 27, 2012

I agree with suntan12. I think that packing peanuts are good, but moving supplies like wrap and pads are better.

By anon218608 — On Sep 29, 2011

I wonder what use the different shapes of them have?

By Sunny27 — On Apr 12, 2011

@Suntan12 - I know what you mean, but I am starting to see more inflated plastic bags in place of the packing peanuts.

It is much better and it is easier to discard as well. I know that a lot of storage facilities sell cheap packing peanuts but I think that I prefer the inflated plastic bags instead. They also take up more room in the package which helps protect its contents.

By suntan12 — On Apr 11, 2011

I prefer using shipping supplies like bubble wrap or plain newspaper instead because packing peanuts tend to make a mess.

I also think that if you pack with a newspaper instead of packing peanuts it might save you some money. I just don’t like when I get a package and open it up and these foam packing peanuts go all over the place. It is really annoying.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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