Zero Waste Moving Guide, Part IV: Plastic Packaging


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Whether you’re downsizing, upsizing, or just working with a new floor plan, getting settled into your new space often requires some new furniture. During my most recent move, I found over and over again that there’s no plastic-free lunch in this department: you search for days to find a new table that meets your requirements for dimensions, esthetics, budget, and is also FSC certified and/or locally made/Fair Trade/etc. But when it arrives, it’s invariably swathed in protective layers of plastic and foam packaging that will outlast the furniture within by several hundred years.

It’s exasperating. 

While ideally we would have better alternatives by now, we don’t, because, if I’m being pragmatic, plastic packaging isn’t all bad; the truth is, it’s complicated. Its super lightweight nature means that shipping goods to your door requires a lot less fuel, an obvious win from the climate change perspective. The trick is convincing everyone to then dispose of it properly instead of throwing it “away.”

Turns out, a lot of plastic packaging is readily recyclable if you’re willing to plan a bit. 

WHAT IS IT

POLYETHYLENE

In packaging,* polyethylene shows up in #2 and #4 plastic bags and films. You’ll recognize it in those ubiquitous air pillows, bubble wrap, padded envelopes, and generally most plastic bags inside a shipped box, like the ones that contain mounting hardware or assembly instructions.

*Note that #2 and #4 plastic bags & films are recyclable in their everyday iterations as well, like dry cleaning bags, Ziploc bags, cereal box liners, bread bags, produce bags, and the protective wrapping around things like toilet paper and paper towels. Caution: it does not include those brittle pre-washed salad bags, thicker resealable bags often used for frozen produce, or anything similar, like chip bags or candy wrappers. Also, no biodegradable bags, those will funk everything up. 

EXPANDED POLYSTYRENE (EPS)

EPS is what most of us (mistakenly) call Styrofoam. Styrofoam, I just learned, is the brand name for a rigid blue insulation product made by Dow Chemical Company—not the ubiquitous white foam that’s used in packaging and take-out containers. Whoops. Expanded polystyrene is just polystyrene plastic (think CD jewel cases and plastic forks) puffed full of air. The finished product is 98% air, which is why the packing gods love it.


WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

Whale_Shark_Plastic_Bag_Ocean.jpg

…Sigh.


BUT JUST IN CASE YOU NEED MORE CONVINCING, HERE ARE SOME NUMBERS:

I promise you it’s only gotten worse since 2010.  Image © Jambeck et al, Science 2015

I promise you it’s only gotten worse since 2010. Image © Jambeck et al, Science 2015

Every year, humans generate roughly 275 million tons of plastic waste in coastal countries alone. Of this staggering amount, the ocean swallows up an estimated 8 million tons of it. While clearly not all of this comes from plastic packaging specifically, in the age where free shipping and Amazon Prime reign, it can be pretty difficult to steer clear of plastic packaging even if you’re conscious of the problem. 

What’s worse, expanded polystyrene is unaffected by the elements and does not biodegrade, full stop. Experts estimate that EPS makes up 60-80% of marine litter, even though it is 100% recyclable according to the EPS Packaging Group, which manufactures it. Gaaah.

WHERE DOES IT GO?

Once recycled, most polyethylene plastic bags will be pelletized and reprocessed into new plastic products, like more bags, reusable grocery bags, plumbing pipes, and plastic lumber. So, merely recycling your packaging won’t solve the world’s plastic problem by any stretch, but at least it prevents new plastic from being produced in order to manufacture these products.

EPS has a similar trajectory: it can be chopped up and reused in packaging, “melted” into raw polystyrene (either with heat and friction or with a solvent derived from orange peels), and pelletized for use in everything from new packing peanuts to toys to park benches. It’s also sometimes burned for fuel in industrial incinerators, and while far from a perfect way to generate energy, when EPS is burned in a very high temperature facility, it’s converted into heat, carbon dioxide, water, and a very small amount of solid ash—i.e. not the plethora of toxic fumes I would have expected; color me surprised. [Note: burning EPS in your backyard trashcan will give off a bunch of toxic fumes, so don’t do it; extremely high heat is apparently key to the equation.]

YOUR OPTIONS

The best option for dealing with the plastic packaging deluge after a move is to avoid it altogether by altering pieces you already have or buying used furniture and bringing it home yourself. However, finding the exact right piece to fit your space/budget/esthetics/ethics in a second-hand store is not always the most practical solution when you need a surface to eat dinner on now—not three months down the line. So do your best, and here’s how to deal with unwanted plastic packaging responsibly:

#2 AND #4 PLASTIC BAGS AND FILMS 

These are generally recyclable at specific drop-off locations. Do not put them in your curbside bin, please and thank you. 

Recyclers beware: the recycling number label system, also known as the Resin Identification Code, or RIC, is fairly confusing (no, having that little recycling symbol on it does not automatically mean it’s recyclable), and there’s no regulating body to certify that the label manufacturers place on their packaging is even a correct reflection of the type of plastic it contains. Luckily, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition is trying to create a more consumer friendly system with their helpful How2Recycle labels. You’ve probably seen them on Amazon’s white and blue padded shipping envelopes.

Many municipalities collect plastic bags and films at their local recycling center or during periodic recycling events. These larger collection opportunities are great for the post-move packaging deluge. Pro Tip: I put a separate trash bin in my laundry room to collect all recyclable bags and films that make their way into my house, and I make sure to put municipal recycling events on my calendar with a reminder a week ahead of time so I don’t miss them!

The moodiest photo of Expanded Polystyrene ever taken. You’re welcome.

The moodiest photo of Expanded Polystyrene ever taken. You’re welcome.

EXPANDED POLYSTYRENE (EPS) 

MUNICIPAL RECYCLING

The same properties that make EPS so useful in packaging (i.e. bulky but lightweight and moldable to any shape) make it an abysmal candidate for curbside recycling. Frankly it’s an abysmal candidate for your trash bin as well, if you’d hoped to fit anything else in there before collection day. Instead, most cities create centralized collection points and let residents do the legwork, which helps to offset the high cost of recycling it. Again, some municipalities have a designated recycling center where residents can drop off EPS any day of the week, while others hold larger one-day recycling events every couple months. Google “polystyrene recycling” to see what your local options are, or use this mediocre Foam Recycling Locator (but be sure to double-check the information it gives you).

Donate for reuse

Some shipping and packing companies do actually collect packing peanuts for reuse. The best way to find out which local companies do this is to call the Peanut Hotline (yeah; the Peanut Hotline.) at 1-800-828-2214. They’ll look up recycling locations for you by zip code. Note: I couldn’t get their website to load, so calling is the best option as of November 2018.