A friend of mind told me that the 'spongy beads' commonly used as a filler for packaging are actually made from potato peelings and are therefore fully biodegradable and can even be used in compost. Is this true?
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Your friend was talking about (to use industry jargon) 'loose-fill cushioning material' made from vegetable starch derived from corn, wheat and potatoes, with or without their peelings.
Popcorn has also been used for cushioning. I have heard about one small office that bought an electric popcorn maker for this very purpose.
At the moment petroleum-derived expanded polystyrene (EPS) is more commonly used.
While polystyrene is theoretically recyclable, most recyclers only accept large quantities from commercial sources. Very few councils collect polystyrene from households. Unlike the vege-foam alternatives, polystyrene can't be composted and is not biodegradable.
So how do you tell the difference?
Luckily for you, the insatiably curious staff at G Magazine have been experimenting with this (and other things, such as setting fire to sunscreen to check its alcohol content, but that's another story).
Our highly scientific tests, involving the office kitchen sink and a Bokashi bin, confirmed that vege-foam dissolves in water, while EPS doesn't.
As a general rule, if it dissolves when you wet it, you can put it in the compost bin.
Remember that biodegradability is great, but it doesn't make a disposable product environmentally benign.
Choose vege-foam over EPS, but if you can keep packaging and padding to a minimum or do without it, so much the better. Call me crazy, but I'd rather see corn, wheat and potatoes feeding people.