Through these simple sustainability science activities, discover the different properties of starch versus traditional packing peanuts. Then use these materials to introduce the basics of architectural design! Complete with video tutorials in both English and Spanish and lesson printables, these STEM activities are suitable for scientists of all ages!
Each time the doorbell rings, my children rapidly materialize from their rooms to see who’s there in the hopes that it’s a delivery person carrying a package. They then either wait impatiently for me to retrieve the package from the porch or slowly stroll back to what they were doing when no package appears.
Can you relate to this?
Since the pandemic, we have significantly increased our amount of online ordering, which in turn has expanded the volume of packing materials we receive. Our online ordering habit also increased my children’s activity level running to and from the front door each day!
This increased consumption of packaging may initially seem like a problem for a family that is attempting to live a more low waste, sustainable lifestyle. On the contrary, it has actually been an excellent way to introduce sustainable design concepts through science!
What’s Inside a Package?
Most traditional packages arrive with lots of filler packaging that occupies empty space in the box to avoid damage during transit. Filler packaging comes in many forms including:
- Plastic, air-filled sacs
- White paper
- Brown paper
- Traditional packing peanuts
- Compostable (or starch) packing peanuts
Just about all filler packaging can be repurposed. I love these ideas from my co-founder about how to reuse shipping materials as zero waste gift wrap. My kids, however, love the sustainability science experiments we do with packing peanuts.
Traditional vs. Compostable Packing Peanuts
Traditional packing peanuts, often mistaken for trademarked “Styrofoam”, are actually made of a petroleum-based product called polystyrene. Polystyrene, like other petroleum-based products, requires extraction and heavy industrial processing to obtain and manufacture. Further, petroleum-based products take hundreds of years to break down in landfills.
Compostable packing peanuts, however, are made of plant-based material from either wheat or corn starch. These packing peanuts are very different from their polystyrene counterparts despite their similar appearance.
When mixed with water, the difference between traditional and compostable packing peanuts becomes crystal clear!
How To Know The Difference Between Polystyrene and Compostable Packing Peanuts
So how do you know if your packing peanuts are compostable? A very simple science experiment will satiate your curiosity.
To figure out if your packing peanuts are compostable:
- Dip the end of the packing peanut in water.
- If the end feels sticky, it’s made of starch and is compostable!
- If the end just feels wet, with no change to the packaging itself, it’s a traditional petroleum-based type.
- Additionally, many compostable packing peanuts are off-white in color, while petroleum-based peanuts typically are a bright white color.
Now that you know if your shiny new purchase came coddled in traditional or compostable packing peanuts, let’s dive into our first sustainability science activity.
Packing Peanuts Science Experiment for Kids
In order to get started with this science experiment, you’ll need to gather a few supplies.
Materials for the Packing Peanuts Science Experiment:
- Polystyrene packaging (doesn’t have to be in the traditional “peanut” form – any white, “styrofoam-like” packing material will do!)
- Starch packaging
- 2 clear glass containers
- “Let’s Compare Packaging” – Packing Peanuts STEM activity printable
Instructions for the Packing Peanuts Science Experiment
Once you’ve gathered the necessary supplies, it’s time to experiment! Here are simple, step-by-step instructions:
- Make observations about each type of packaging. Note the color, texture (rough or smooth) and relative weight (light or heavy) of each material.
- Create a hypothesis about each type of packaging. Prompt your learners to complete this sentence for each: “If I place the _ packaging in water, it will…..”
- Fill each glass jar approximately half full of water.
- Place the polystyrene packaging in one glass of water and the starch packaging in the other.
- Stir each container for approximately one minute.
- Observe any changes that occur.
- For younger learners, complete the discussion questions on the “Let’s Compare Packaging” printable available via download. For upper elementary to middle school studnets, check out the videos below and answer the questions at the end of the video.
As your learners work their way through the discussion questions, remind them that polystyrene packaging is an oil-based product. Then prompt them with the question, “Do oil and water mix?” This may help to answer why petroleum-based packaging doesn’t dissolve in water.
This simple sustainability science lesson is a terrific way to help your learners become more comfortable with the steps of the scientific method. It also sparks curiosity about the environmental impact packaging has on the planet and may foster some excellent dinner table conversations.
Sustainable STEM Design Challenge With Packing Peanuts
Starch packing peanuts aren’t just a terrific alternative to petroleum-based packaging. They’re also an excellent material to introduce the basics of architectural design. Because compostable peanuts are made of either cornstarch or potato starch, they become sticky when exposed to water. Their adhesive property, when wet, makes them a fantastic material to create a fun, family science challenge!
So, what’s the family STEM challenge, you ask?
We challenge you to build the tallest, freestanding tower made out of no more than 30 compostable packing peanuts that must also be able to hold a quarter on top of it.
Materials to build a compostable packing peanut tower:
- 30 compostable packing peanuts per person
- Piece of paper or cardboard to use as a base to build upon
Depending on the ages of your participants, you may want to show them pictures of various tall towers and ask them to look for similarities. See if they realize that the base must be the widest part in order to maximize the stability of the tower.
If you’re not sure where to find compostable packing peanuts, check local storage centers or office supply stores. Our local U-Haul store sells them in big bags for $4.95 each. You can also search for online retailers or even check with your local BuyNothing group or Facebook Marketplace to grab a few from your neighbors.
A compostable packing peanut tower challenge is a great alternative to traditional family game night, and it can spark insightful discussion about how manufacturers and product designers must consider the properties of materials they use. Obviously, starch packing peanuts wouldn’t be a good choice for building a tower in real life, but they are an excellent replacement for traditional styrofoam-like packing materials.
At the end of the challenge, chuck the towers in the compost or dissolve them in water. It’s a great experiment to learn about so many sustainability and STEM concepts with no waste leftover.
Additional Learning About Sustainable Infrastructure Design and Construction
Take the challenge a step further and continue the discussion on sustainable building materials. For example, consider the qualifications that constitute a LEED-certified building from the United States Green Building Council.
LEED-certified buildings are created with sustainability as a core principle of their design and construction. What materials or design elements might you use in building a home or classroom that could be more sustainable than traditional building materials or design elements?
The United States Green Building Council even has a Learning Lab that offers free lessons for students about sustainable design and construction. They offer lots of different lessons like an Introduction to Sustainability and Building Design, Urban Trees, and Imagine Zero Waste.
Share Your Experiment With Us
If you try out either of these experiments, we’d love to hear about how they went and see your results. Be sure to share your pictures on Instagram or Facebook and tag us @raisingglobalkidizens or send them our way via email!
About The Author
Jess Purcell, a co-founder of Raising Global Kidizens, is a science educator who is dedicated to making the science of sustainability accessible to all learners. She creates sustainability science lessons and nature activities written for students of all ages to be done in the classroom or at home to foster critical thinking skills and a love of the natural world. You can find more of her work at Thoughtfully Sustainable.
Jess lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and two cats and can usually be found outside, working out the kinks of an experiment, upcycling trash into “treasure”, hiking with her family, or attempting to read a book while being cajoled into a game of hide-and-seek.