Anyone who knows me has undoubtedly heard me rant about foam peanuts, even the relatively new breed of “green” peanuts that are promoted as eco-friendly. Those biodegradable peanuts are usually made with corn starch, or other natural, renewable crop product or even agricultural waste. Though I usually applaud the use and reuse of any renewable product, especially anything that would otherwise wind up as waste, there are points one should consider before using peanuts for void fill, biodegradable or not. 

    Are They Customer Friendly?
    First and foremost, how do the people on the receiving end, your customers, feel about receiving a box packed with foam peanuts, even the biodegradable variety? Ask a few and you will probably discover they are not pleased with your choice of packing material. Digging through the peanuts to locate the item they ordered is just the beginning, and it ends with finding a way to dispose of them. Peanuts cannot be easily recycled, and they take up a tremendous amount of space to be stored for later reuse.

    Depending on the composition, bio peanuts can crumble, be filled with static, have an unpleasant odor or even be infested with hungry critters who dine on agricultural byproducts and waste. Mostly they are just plain messy and after we realized the vacuuming that became necessary after every delivery, and in spite of our repeated complaints, we finally found a new provider of office supplies. One that does not use peanuts for void fill. 

    Why would any business person ignore their customers’ complaints? Because peanuts tend to be among the least expensive void fills on a “cost per cubic foot” basis. Once again, though, we have to draw the distinction between cost and price and if you factor in all the costs of use, you’ll understand that peanuts are not nearly as inexpensive as they appear to be in the per cubic foot comparison peanut sellers like you to focus on. 

    Hidden Costs of Using Packaging Peanuts
    The additional labor cost for large volume users of peanuts has been well documented due to packing stations that require cleanup, in some cases, several times per day. However; my biggest problem with peanuts is the huge amount of space they consume for storage and shipment. 

    One of my favorite photos is that of a packer holding a single box of inflatable void fill and behind him is a wall of bags filled with foam peanuts. The caption reads that the box of inflatable product is the equivalent in terms of cubic feet of all of the peanuts stacked up behind the packer. I appreciate this photo because it so graphically shows the difference between using and shipping a pre-expanded void fill product versus one that can be expanded as needed. A pre-expanded product obviously, takes up as much as twenty-five times the amount of space, or more! 

    Translate that into shipping and storage costs, and you will understand why I have such an issue with peanuts. Also keep in mind that every void fill product you use is shipped a minimum of two times before you ship it to your customer. Most types typically ship from the manufacturer to the local distributor, and then from the distributor to you. Imagine the cost and carbon footprint that leaves behind. 

    Greener Alternatives
    The specific application will always dictate the “best” solution for any given packaging problem but in general, here are two good options to consider:
    Paper products – they have been used forever because they work. There many different types and grades ranging from industrial tissue to extra heavy indented Kraft. Most are 100% recycled content, recyclable and very economical to store and ship. 
    Bio-plastics – 100% biodegradable and 100% recycled content versions are now available in void fill and cushioning products such as bubble packaging, foams and the inflatable products I mentioned above. 

    To be fair, foam peanuts are inexpensive, lightweight and do a nice job of supporting heavy products during shipment. My questions however is, if you can utilize a greener, more customer friendly and cost competitive product, why wouldn’t you? 
    Dennis Salazar is president and co-founder of Salazar Packaging, Inc. and one of the most prolific writers in the area of sustainable packaging, his work appearing in numerous blogs and magazines including his own blog, Inside Sustainable Packaging. Contact him at dennis@salazarpackaging.com.

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