Dear Umbra,

I was wondering whether you could provide me with advice about packaging materials. You see, I was recently married and my wife and I now find ourselves buried under packaging peanuts, Styrofoam, and other such materials, much as we tried to avoid the fate (of receiving loads of store-bought gifts, that is, not of being hitched). What do you suggest we do with boxes and boxes of this post-nuptial detritus?

Chip Giller
Grist Editor
Seattle, Wash.

Dearest Chip,

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Ahem, if you read your own publication, you would no doubt recall my trenchant, award-deserving 2003 column explicating the Styrofoam controversy. Your wedding gifts were likely packed in polystyrene loose fill, not Styrofoam, Dow Chemical’s trademarked extruded polystyrene insulation. Polystyrene is hard plastic blown into such various fun shapes as peanuts and takeout-box “clams.”

Playing for peanuts.

Some of your packaging peanuts may be merely masquerading as plastic: A subset of them are likely made of cornstarch. You can test the content by running water over the squiggies. The cornstarch ones will dissolve, so just take those out to the backyard and hose ’em down, or stick them in the compost pile.

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Plastic packaging peanuts and their ilk are undeniably handy. They withstand moisture, heat, cold, and harsh blows from UPS employees. One option for you, then, is to think of them as a great addition to your arts-and-crafts closet: They have innumerable untapped uses, from stuffing sagging cushions or making homemade punching bags to padding walls in the romper room, filling scarecrows, insulating dollhouses … The list goes on.

But the main use for these peanuts is their original one: packaging. If you have space, store them for future weddings, bat mitzvahs, retirement parties, and relocation ordeals. If you don’t have space, call the Peanut Hotline. I’m not kidding: 1.800.828.2214. Operated by the Plastic Loose Fill Council, this hotline will direct you to local establishments that can reuse your plastic peanuts. Usually these will be local mailing outfits — not the post office, but those little stores that pack and ship items for a fee. They’ll take your peanuts and send them along to another happy customer.

That customer should be happy, according to the Plastic Loose Fill Council: “Atmospheric emissions from the production of polystyrene are only one-half to one-third of those from the production of a comparable amount of paper.” It’s good to know polystyrene is lower-emission, but really, are people buying virgin paper to pack presents? Reuse your newspapers or borrow someone else’s packing peanuts, folks


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