Target Grade Level / Age Range: 

3 rd- 5 th Grade


Three 60-minute class periods   


Students will compare packing peanuts made from Styrofoam with ones made from biodegradable materials (like corn), identify which are made from renewable and nonrenewable resources, and evaluate the impact of each on environment. 


  • Corn-based (cornstarch) packing peanuts (biodegradable): one peanut for each student or group
  • Styrofoam packing peanuts: one peanut for each student or group
  • Each student or group needs 2 cups filled with water
  • Eggs
  • Boxes
  • Packing tape
  • Various items for packing experiment (Option B)

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

  • 11 Experiments that Failed, by Jenny Offill (Fiction)
  • “Disappearing Packing Peanut Experiment,” ,  Illinois Agriculture in the Classroom, Teacher Resources, Lesson Booklets, Science
  • Iowa Ag Today, Issue 1, pp. 1, 4 (Info about corn products)
  • Iowa Ag Today, Issue 6, pp. 1, 3, 7 (Info about corn products)
  • My Family’s Corn Farm by Katie Olthoff (Info about corn products)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Biodegradable: a substance capable of breaking down in a way that is not harmful and can be absorbed by the environment
  • Corn-based packing peanuts: biodegradable and nontoxic packing material (made from a renewable resource). They decompose in water and leave no toxic waste behind.
  • Polystyrene (Styrofoam) packing peanuts: foam packing material that is made from a petroleum-based plastic (made from a nonrenewable resource)
  • Nontoxic: not poisonous

Background – Agricultural Connections

A nonrenewable resource is a resource that cannot be readily or easily replaced by natural means. For example, most fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal are considered nonrenewable resources. There use is not sustainable because their formation takes billions of years to produce.

A renewable resource is a natural resource which replenishes quickly and overcomes resource depletion caused by overuse. It is produced either through biological reproduction or other naturally recurring processes. For example, solar energy, wind energy, hydro-power, geothermal energy, and biomass energy (ethanol) are all considered renewable resources.

Students need to have a background understanding of renewable and nonrenewable resources and type of products that are created using these sources. Packing peanuts are an example of both a renewable and nonrenewable source depending on how they are made. Biodegradable packing peanuts can be made from different agricultural products, such as corn or wheat, and are renewable, biodegradable and safe if accidentally ingested. Styrofoam packing peanuts are made from plastics, which is made from petroleum- a nonrenewable resource. Styrofoam packing peanuts have a significant impact on the environment because they may or may not be able to be recycled and they are not biodegradable.

Interest Approach or Motivator: 

Show the two kinds of packing peanuts and ask students if they know what you have. To encourage discussion, ask students:

  • What are these items I am showing you? (Packing peanuts)
  • What are they used for? (To protect items being stored away or being sent by mail so they do not get damaged)
  • Have you ever received a package that contained packing materials?
  • Name and describe the packing material that was used (Possible answers: wadded paper, cardboard/plastic structures, air pockets and bubble wrap, peanuts, etc.) 


Packing Peanut Experiment
  1. As a class, create a list/chart of packing materials and pros and cons for each item. Have each student fill out the PackingPeanutWS.doc as you discuss ideas as a class.
  2. Next, either break students up into groups or have each student do their own experiment.
  3. Give each group or student one corn-based packing peanut (A) and one Styrofoam packing peanut (B). Have each student observe the differences and the characteristics of the two packing peanuts. Record observations in the Venn Diagram in the PackingPeanutWS.doc.
  4. Give each group or student two cups each filled with water and put a Styrofoam peanut (B) in one cup and a biodegradable corn peanut (A) in the other.
  5. Observe what happens to both peanuts when exposed to water. Have a class identify the differences between the two items (which is made from the nonrenewable resource and which came from a renewable resource, the impact each has on the environment, and why the biodegradable peanut was invented). Record information in the PackingPeanutWS.doc.
After Packing Peanut Experiment
  1. Have students conduct a quick internet search to discover what the biodegradable peanuts are made from or reveal that these packing peanuts were made from a corn product. 
  2. Ask students if they know other industrial items that are made from corn. (Students do another online search to gather information to make a list.) 
  3. Show students the corn processing and utilization poster found here, and discuss some of the items that are made from corn and what part of the corn plant made them.
Packing Peanut Design Experiment
  1. Read the book: 11 Experiments that Failed.
  2. Introduce class experiment: groups of students will investigate an experiment of their own about packing material. Using an egg as the cargo that is being transported, students must construct an idea for packing material around the egg. The goal is to protect the egg to make sure it does not break. Students can test their design by dropping the egg and packing material in a box. Please see the PackageDropWS.doc for testing dropping the package.  
  3. Have groups brainstorm the criteria for packing material. What is the purpose of packing material? (Keeping things from breaking and must be lightweight so it does not cost more to mail, etc.)
  4. Please see either Option A or B for testing the egg package.
  5. Option A: Finding other materials for packing other than the standard packing materials.
    1. In class, create a criteria checklist for packing material. Students need to keep in mind the minimal criteria:  lightweight and protects the packaged item. Other criteria could include: is it an agricultural product, cost of item, supply, biodegradable, and what products it works with – food, plastic, wood, glass, etc. 
    2. Have groups brainstorm a list of 3-5 different materials that could be repurposed for packing and use the checklist to identify pros and cons of each material. Students need to also list a minimum of 1 item that would be a good packing material, but would not be used because of criteria such as weight, lack of supply, etc. and identify the criteria and explain why this item would not be used.  
    3. All materials need to be common items that can be found in a home (Some ideas students may think of could include:  recycled- newspaper, repurposed egg cartons; food- popcorn in bags; wadded grocery bags; balloons filled with air; etc.) The materials must be something repurposed for packing.
    4. No peanuts, paper, bubble wrap that is already purposed for packing can be used in this experiment. Encourage your students to think outside the box.
  6. Option B: Teacher provides an assortment of materials available for groups to test and work with.
    1. Include items that would and would not work for various reasons.
      • Cardboard
      • Newspaper
      • Yarn
      • Rocks
      • Denim
      • Cotton balls
      • Egg cartons
      • Pompoms
    2. Each group will get a box to put their egg and packing material in. Groups will choose one material from the generated list and test their experiment with the egg.  (Could also test a packing material that wouldn’t work).
    3. Before students tape up the box with their egg and experiment packing material inside, have students take a “before” picture of the inside of their packaged egg. Tape up the box, take a picture of the outside appearance of the box, and get ready to test the egg trial.
  7. Have students fill out the PackageDropWS.doc. For a teacher example please see the SampleEntryPackageDropWS.doc
    1. Conduct the experiment first with biodegradable packing peanuts. Then with the plastic packing peanuts. Record their observations. Then have students complete the experiment with their alternative materials from Option A or Option B.
    2. After completing the worksheet, have students take a picture of the outside of the box and the inside of the box to see how it has changed after dropping the box.
    3. After looking at the egg and its condition, rate the packaging performance and reflect how the students thought their packing material upheld or what they would change if they were to do it again.

Optional Activity: Students will create a slide show to report the information about their packing product and test results to the class. 

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • Biodegradable packing peanuts are made from natural, nontoxic sources of corn starch or wheat. This packing material can be added to compost piles. While they are nontoxic or safe if accidently eaten, the nutritional value has been removed from the starch in these items. Keep in mind they are NOT made in food-safe conditions nor recommended for eating. 

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Ship boxes to different places and evaluate how the packing material preformed.  Set up a contact with a relative, another school, etc.  When box is received pictures can be taken and emailed back to show the box before opened, after first opened, and after item(s) were unpacked or use a video chat showing the opening and unpacking the box.  Include a customer survey to rate the packaging.  Survey results will be mailed or emailed back to the class.
  • Plan an economic lesson about packing material:  cost of material, how much does it increase shipping cost, and research the costs of different kinds of shipping options.
  • Have students research different kinds of agricultural products that are shipped, how they are shipped, what kind of packing materials keep the items in good conditions (Example: apple or egg cartons), distance items have to be shipped, etc.   


Beth Maynes and Hannah Pagel

Organization Affiliation(s):

Woodbury Central Elementary

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation     

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • T2.3-5.b:  Distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources used in the production of food, feed, fuel, fiber (fabric or clothing) and shelter.

Iowa Core Standards

  • 4-ESS3-1: Obtain and combine information to describe that energy and fuels are derived from natural resources and their uses affect the environment.
  • 4-ESS3-2:  Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans.
  • 21.3-5.TL2:  Use interactive technologies in a collaborative group to produce digital presentations or products in a curricular area.
  • 21.3-5.TL3: Utilize digital tools and resources to investigate real–world issues, answer questions, or solve problems.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.