[In his ongoing but sporadic series Don't Throw That Away!, the Green Cheapskate shows you how to repurpose just about anything, saving money and the environment in the process. Send him your repurposing ideas and challenges, but whatever you do, Don't Throw That Away!]
I've always hated those foam packing peanuts that fly out of the box and end up everywhere whenever you open a mail order package. They seem to be a product designed more to annoy the recipient than to protect the recipient's cargo.
My disdain for packing peanuts reached its zenith a few years ago when I went to a job interview dressed in my best navy blue pinstriped suit. I thought the interview went well, until I was walking out of the meeting room and happened to catch a reflection of myself in a glass panel. Through the scientific miracle of static cling, half a dozen bright pink packing peanuts had mockingly affixed themselves to the seat of my pants. I didn't get the job, and I still blame packing peanuts for that failure.
In fairness to the packing peanut industry, they have made some strides over the years to at least make some packing peanuts more eco-friendly, if no less annoying. There are even new environmentally friendly packing peanuts on the market that are made out of corn starch, wheat, and other natural materials, so they biodegrade quickly and some even dissolve in water. Shippers will usually put a slip in with your shipment letting you know if they use biodegradable peanuts, in which case you can just add them to your compost pile.
Traditional packing peanuts are made out of polystyrene and are now color coded to indicate the origin of the material they contain. Polystyrene takes hundreds of years to decompose in nature, so recycling it is key. Green colored packing peanuts are made from at least 70% recycled material, while white and pink colored peanuts are composed of at least 70% raw (i.e. non-recycled) materials. Additionally, pink peanuts have been treated with chemicals to prevent static cling -- tell that to those little pink devils who sabotaged my job interview.
And so, my prescriptions for creatively reusing foam packing peanuts are born as much out of a desire for revenge as a desire to save money and save the planet, but here goes:
Reuse: Store packing peanuts in an old pair of pantyhose to keep them from over taking your house until you're ready to ship them off to someone else. Cut a hole in the toe -- if there's not already one there -- and tie it off with a twisty-seal for easy peanut dispensing.
Refuse: If you detest packing peanuts as much as I do, ask mail order companies if they use them before you agree to place an order, and encourage them to use the new biodegradable variety. Sometimes companies, particularly smaller outfits, will agree to ship your order with shredded newspaper or some other more eco-friendly substitute instead.
Recycle: More and more recycling programs are accepting packing peanuts, but make sure you put them in a bag or box so that they don't escape and invade the neighborhood. Also, shipping services like Mailboxes, Etc. will often accept peanut donations, as will many stores and businesses that do a lot of shipping. If nothing else, list them on the Freecycle Network, since someone in your area is bound to be moving or shipping something.
Potted Plant Drainage: Substituting packing peanuts (the non-biodegradable variety) for gravel in the base of potted plants not only provides good drainage, but it makes the containers much lighter and easier to move.
Deck the Halls: String up multi-colored packing peanuts instead of old-fashioned popcorn and cranberries for some festive yuletide decorations. Nothing says "Happy Holidays" like repurposing would-be throwaways.
Home Insulation? No (but maybe an entire home): Unlike foam insulating materials used in home construction, packing peanuts have not been treated to make them flame retardant, so they shouldn't be used as insulation. But that didn't keep this 12-year old genius from building an experimental home out of them.
Floating Key Chain: Thread a few packing peanuts on your key chain if you're going boating or to the beach. They'll keep your keys from sinking to the bottom of the deep blue sea.
Make Ice Last Longer: Put packing peanuts in a sealable plastic bag and place on top of the ice in your ice chest. The ice will last longer and everything will stay colder.
Stuff a Costume: Whether it's Santa's belly at Christmastime, a goblin for the front yard for Halloween, or a scarecrow for the summer garden, think packing peanuts whenever you need some lightweight costume stuffing.
Perfect Pet Pillows: Use packing peanuts to stuff a pillow for your pooch or a cushion for your kitty.
Fridge Magnets: Glue packing peanuts on magnets and use with push pins to tack the grocery list and other notes to the door of the fridge. You know, important reminders, like: "NOTE TO SELF: Check suit for clinging packing peanuts before next job interview."
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