What should you do with all the ice packs in your meal delivery kits?

If you subscribe to a meal delivery service, you know all about the ice packs.
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It only took one neatly packed box of ingredients dropped on my doorstep for me to become a meal delivery kit convert. The recipes are simple, the food is (usually) good and it is undeniably convenient. Most importantly, it scratches my millennial eco guilt itch thanks to food waste and carbon footprint claims that, surprisingly, may not be complete rubbish.

But having been subscribed to one of these services for the better part of five months now, a sustainability question nags at me: What am I supposed to do with all these ice packs?

Each of my biweekly boxes comes with two to four of these gel-filled, plastic-wrapped cold packs. Meal delivery kit companies offer disposal recommendations that generally boil down to: snip a corner, squeeze out the thawed innards, recycle or toss the plastic, a process that can feel a bit … wasteful.

So aside from hoarding ice packs indefinitely, what is the greenest way to deal with these items? And are the subscription services’ disposal directions as innocuous and eco-friendly as presented?

Dealing with the innards

Inside meal delivery ice packs you’ll often find a whiteish, gel-like substance. Two popular companies, HelloFresh and Home Chef, publicly confirm this is mostly water, with a small amount of a substance known as sodium polyacrylate.

Sodium polyacrylate has a wide variety of commercial uses because of its ability to absorb up to 300 times its weight in liquid. You’ll find it in diapers, for example, or pet pads. But it’s also used as artificial snow, as an additive in certain foods, in waterbeds, as a metals-absorbing product in detergents, as a moisture retention tool in agriculture - the list is quite long.

But is it actually safe?

Chemical safety data sheets for sodium polyacrylate note it will likely irritate your eyes if it gets in them. The substance could also annoy your skin, throat and lungs.

Dogs that ate pet pads containing sodium polyacrylate have shown signs of neurotoxicity, one study found. Some rats continuously exposed to the substance for a long period of time developed chronic lung inflammation and tumors. And as Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota, put it: “I wouldn’t eat it.”

However, sodium polyacrylate is generally viewed as nontoxic for humans, and there is little evidence it poses a serious hazard to the environment or wildlife.

Now, that doesn’t mean it is good for nature.

Sodium polyacrylate is not likely to break down quickly, meaning any ice pack gel you squeeze into the trash could linger in a landfill for quite a while. You also probably don’t want to pour it down the drain, as it could clog the small pipes in a home plumbing system, the Metropolitan Council Environmental Services said. And the City of Minneapolis pointed out that “nontoxic” for humans does not guarantee it is harmless to other species.

Keep in mind, not all meal kit companies use sodium polyacrylate. Blue Apron, for instance, declined to reveal the substance used in its ice packs, but insisted it was nontoxic and safe for home plumbing. The City of Minneapolis wouldn’t comment specifically on Blue Apron’s directions, but offered a general message: Don’t pour anything down the drain you don’t have to.

Is the plastic actually recyclable?

The exterior of an ice pack is often a film plastic known as LDPE (a #4 plastic). It’s commonly used for plastic bags, squeezable condiment holders, cling wrap and other similar products. Meal delivery kit companies like to point out this film plastic is recyclable.

While they’re not wrong, doing so requires some extra effort.

Film plastic cannot be recycled through curbside services in Minneapolis or St. Paul, representatives with both cities confirmed. In fact, most curbside recycling programs don’t accept the material. To properly recycle film plastic, you have to empty it out, rinse it, and let it dry. Then, you can bring it to a specialty drop-off location at a grocer or retailer.

What happens if you do drop an empty ice pack shell in your big blue recycling bin out back?

Lynn Hoffman, the co-president of Eureka Recycling, cited two big problems. First, the plastic can get tangled in a sorting machine’s axles, prompting an operational shut down to clear it up. According to Hoffman, this issue alone costs Eureka $70,000 annually.

Second, if the plastic does make it through, the machine has trouble identifying it as plastic and often sorts it with paper. That’s a problem, since it can contaminate a bail of materials someone may be buying to make a cardboard box, for example, explained Hoffman.

“The plastic bags technically have an operating recycling program in the Twin Cities, but it’s not through the blue bins,” she said. “Which just makes it tricky to communicate about.”

What’s the best course of action?

There is clearly interest from consumers about what to do with meal kit packaging. A spokesperson for the City of Minneapolis said Public Works has gotten more calls and emails about how to dispose of meal delivery materials. St. Paul has seen a 15% increase in additional recycling materials recently, which it is attributing in part to meal delivery kits.

Still, a lot of people aren’t taking the steps needed to recycle plastic.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, through a spokesperson, noted only about 12% of plastic statewide is recycled, and most of it is #1 and #2 plastic. In 2018, more than 544,000 tons of plastic wound up as waste. About 75,000 tons were recycled.

If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of your consumer choices, the option with the fewest negatives is reuse. That’s what Hoffman suggested for the ice packs.

“I think putting them on your neighborhood ... NextDoor app, to see if anybody wants to use them for camping or coolers,” she said, when asked for her recommendation. “I think reuse is probably the best option for those ice packs.”

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